Nuclear weapons are so common both in their physical number and media saturation that it’s easy to dismiss them. Paradoxically, the level of import which our cultural corpus has attached to them (imagine the number of books/movies/games wherein terrorists seize control of a nuke and plan to unleash it on an American city) and the degree to which their use is always thwarted places all of the significance in the threat of their use and the drama of their acquisition. We easily forget that these devices have twice been used on populated areas, and the resulting holocaust is so much more terrible than the insinuations of 24 or a Tom Clancy novel.
We also forget just how massive an undertaking it was to build the weapons in the first place, and Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer-winning author and perhaps the greatest living authority of the history of nuclear weapons1, wrote a book whose size is commensurate. At almost a thousand pages, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is not light beach reading, but one sees immediately why it won a Pulitzer.
The history of the atomic bomb is actually a number of histories rolled into one: the history of physics, the history of the physicists in question (disproportionately Jewish), and the history of World War II. Like John Barry’s history of the Influenza outbreak circa 1917, it is necessary for Rhodes to begin with the state of science’s understanding about the atom and the important personages who contributed to that understanding. Some of it is standard introductory physics stuff, including the various models of the atom, most importantly that of Neils Bohr. I had always known that the Bohr model was incorrect, and mistakenly believed that he was a minor figure in the history of atomic physics, but it turns out he is one of the stars of the book; though his model (the one with electrons orbiting a nucleus like moons around a planet) was quickly superseded by one which more accurately describes electrons as existing in a probability “cloud” around the nucleus, he was nonetheless a giant in the field—and he was more or less directly responsible for saving 7’000+ Danish Jews.
Approximately the first 300 pages of The Making of the Atomic Bomb have nothing to do with atomic bombs; rather, it’s a concise history of physics up through the 1930’s. Much of this is establishing the histories of the dramatis personae, from early founders of nuclear physics like Ernest Rutherford (and Bohr) to the breakthrough scientists like Leó Szilárd (who first discovered chain reactions and was arguably the theoretical leader of the Manhattan project) and Enrico Fermi. Rhodes notes that a disproportionate number of European Jewish scientists ended up in the United States or Britain during the first quarter of the 20th century due to either antisemitism (Leó Szilárd in Hungary) or looming institutionalized persecution (Einstein in Germany), and readers with the benefit of hindsight can appreciate the irony that if Germany hadn’t killed or driven away so many smart physicists, it may have been the first to the bomb.
As it was, Germany was never even close to completing a bomb, in large part to the this very and reason, and also because an Allied saboteur destroyed Germany’s supply of “heavy water”, severely retarding development of their program, which was lead rather casually—Germany never appeared to devote the same level of resources to the work as the United States—by none other than Werner Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty Principle which bears his name. Japan, too, had its own nuclear program, but the lack of resources and lack of manpower also retarded it to a state of impotency.
To make a long story short, by the time World War II was in full swing, the United States had assembled under the auspice of a secret government program some of the most brilliant physicists in the world, adding to the previous list such notables as Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner. The combined efforts of these scientists and a literal army of engineers, eventually in a specially-built compound in New Mexico, culminated in the “Trinity” test—the first detonation of an atomic bomb and the event which prompted Oppenheimer to famous quote the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
I’ve commonly heard it said that while the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was an “atomic bomb”—that is, an explosion created by the self-sustaining chain reaction of fissile material—the bomb dropped later on Nagasaki was a “hydrogen bomb” or “thermonuclear bomb”—that is, an explosion created by the fusion of hydrogen isotopes. In fact, this is incorrect, as the first thermonuclear device, based on the work of Edward Teller, wasn’t tested until 1952. The different between the first “Little Boy” bomb and the later “Fat Man” bomb is the former was trigger by a gun-type mechanism, wherein a uranium bullet is fired into a uranium spike; the latter was a core of plutonium compressed by conventional chemical explosive lenses.
Rhodes’ description of Hiroshima is perhaps the most horrifying and paradoxically the most lyrical and poignant of the book, which may very well be his intent. What follows the successful deployment of the weapon by the Enola Gay is a nightmarish sequence of burned and mutilated Japanese as told by survivors and narrated from source material. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is, it must be said, a somewhat dry affair, however interesting it may be, and so the sheer pornographic violence unleashed by the eventual detonation of the bomb was startling. Rhodes, it must be notes, never comes down on either side of the long debate about the wisdom of using the bomb; he provides enough evidence for Japan’s obstinate resistance to traditional warfare of attrition to give credence to the notion that “saving American lives” was the primary impetus. However, he can’t help but sneer somewhat at Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb” who not only encouraged the ongoing research into nuclear weaponry, but even proposed using them for civil engineering purposes. He [Teller] is, I think, the Henry Kissinger of nuclear physics: brilliant and not a little sociopathic.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb is so dense and historical that it almost goes without saying that at least some of it—be it political minutiæ or the vagaries of particle physics—will fail to sink in; at almost a thousand pages, it’s a lot of historical in a tight space. Don’t let its length or its breadth dissuade you from reading it, however; otherwise you’ll miss the best book on the nuclear bomb ever written.
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the first of three equally-large books about the invention and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a fourth is in the works.[↩]