It would be difficult to identify three American scientists whose work had a greater effect on world politics than Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. This exhaustive account of how they worked together (and competed against each other) on the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs is more a story of people than science. Author Gregg Herken of the Smithsonian Institution informs us, for instance, of Oppenheimer's "riotous parties" in the 1930s, in which latecomers would see "the top physicists of their generation, drunk and crouched on all fours, playing a version of tiddly-winks on the geometric patterns of Oppenheimer's Navajo rug." Despite a few light touches, Brotherhood of the Bomb
is no breezy profile of three great minds. Instead, it is a serious look at invention, rivalry, and betrayal. One of the central episodes involves Oppenheimer's too-cozy relationship with radical-left politics--he carelessly associated with Communists, even though he occupied one of the most sensitive jobs in the U.S. government during the cold war--and Teller's momentous decision to testify against him. This event is one of the most controversial in the annals of American science, and Herken tells it straight, with barely a word of editorial comment. Fans of Richard Rhodes will enjoy this triple biography, as will anybody with an interest in science, politics, and top-secret security clearances. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
The personalities of the scientists who made the nuclear bomb are the focus of this detailed, engrossing history of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Relying on author interviews and primary and secondary sources, Herken (The Winning Weapons) explains the backgrounds of the three physicists who were essential to the creation of the atomic bombs dropped over Japan during WWII. But even though the author focuses on Oppenheimer, Lawrence and Teller offering both brief bios of each and depicting the sometimes-tempestuous relationships among them it's the former who garners the lion's share of his attention. "Oppie," as he was known, has long been a controversial figure for his later opposition to weapons programs and his alleged Communist links (he was stripped of his U.S. government security clearance during the McCarthy years). As Herken notes, the trial might have had a backlash, turning many scientists against U.S. defense projects for years to come. But there's no smoking gun here: Herken argues that it is unlikely that Oppenheimer, despite his strong leftist sympathies, was ever a member of the Communist Party, let alone a spy. But he nicely details the intersection between the scientific and leftist communities (particularly during the 1920s and 1930s) and the government's attempt to infiltrate these communities after the war. The book is unlikely to end the debate over Oppenheimer's past or change any minds about the balances between security needs and civil liberties but if there was ever a question that politics plays a part in science, this book washes away any doubts.
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