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Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller Hardcover – September 9, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (September 9, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805065881
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805065886
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #740,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

This book is so well written I don't dare try to emulate or mimic its prose.
B. Wolf
This is a wonderful book about one of the most controversial developments of the last century: the development of the atomic and then hydrogen bombs.
Robert J. Crawford
Part of the problem is that the book is so clumsily written that it is too hard to follow.
John Standiford

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Klein HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Gregg Herken's Brotherhood of the Bomb manages to overcome the most common obstacle with history books--it makes the subjects and the events come alive. Herken had access to The Smithsonian Archieves as well as interviews with the primary sources involved in the creation of the bomb. The book is a fair balanced account of the difficult personalities and politics that went into the creation of the first nuclear bomb and the later more powerful "super". Only two other books has been this impressive (both by Richard Rhodes)and exhaustive. Herken's book has the advantage of additional resources.
The personalities and egos of Oppenheimer, Teller and Lawrence contributed to the rise and downfall of each man. Oppenheimer's eventual ethical objections to the development of the super came as much from his personal beliefs as it did his distaste for Teller's ideas. Teller became a hawk regarding nuclear policy and, ultimately, his opinions on Oppenheimer contributed to his loss of his security clearence. Lawrence was as driven as both men and largely apolitical until politics and science intersected.
Herken's book is a fascinating portrait of the players and time that helped shape the modern world.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Yalensian VINE VOICE on December 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Herken has written a wonderful account of the United States's programs to develop an atomic bomb during World War II and to build an H-bomb during the 1950s. But beyond chronicling scientific and technological developments, the book explores the world of American politics and government and how it was influencing the physics side of things. More importantly to the work's argument, however, Herken also delves into the scientists personal lives--their friendships, their hobbies, their activities. To that end, he focuses on three:
--Ernest Orlando Lawrence, the driven, imperious, South Dakotan who directed the Rad(iation) Lab at Berkeley and created--ruled, some would say--a "cyclotron republic" there
--Edward Teller, the temperamental Hungarian emigre who fled to the United States from Communists in his native land and from Nazis in Germany, and who, to the exclusion of almost everything else, pursued the H-bomb at Los Alamos and then at Livermore (an interesting anecdote describes how, at the Trinity test, he stunned his companions by putting on suntan lotion, gloves, and welder's glasses)
--J. Robert "Oppie" Oppenheimer (according to Herken, the "J" stands for nothing; other sources have it as "Julius"), the introspective director of the Manhattan Project with an affinity for Eastern religions and leftist, even Communist, causes
These three figure prominently in the tale which begins at Berkeley in the 1930s, where the great physicists of the day began to coalesce. World War II took most of them to Los Alamos in some way or another, although Lawrence's work was mostly at the Rad Lab developing ways of enriching uranium. By the end of the war, splits were beginning to appear as the scientists became more aware of the political and moral implications of their work.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Smallchief on July 15, 2005
Format: Paperback
"Brotherhood of the Bomb" is very good for its first hundred pages as it details the early careers of physicists Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller. Thereafter, the book gets a little too fact-laden and turgid, but it is still a worthwhile book to make your way through. The author strives for, and mostly achieves, an objective account of the scientific and political controversies surrounding Robert Oppenheimer.

The book is good in that it gives recognition to Lawrence as a pioneering atomic energy physicist and assigns only secondary roles to Oppenheimer and Teller in the early part of the book. The charismatic Oppenheimer, however, received the assignment of leading the team that built the first atomic bomb -- although General Leslie Groves, decidely uncharismatic, was really the man who managed the multi-faceted project and deserves at least equal credit with the scientists. Teller, also decidely uncharismatic, later managed the hydrogen bomb project and was a prominent voice in the scientific community until the 1980s.

The fascination of all the science is enhanced by Oppie's politics and the eventual denial of a security clearance for him to work for the U.S. government. The author describes Oppie's many leftist and Communist friends and contacts -- as investigated by the FBI and military security -- in great detail. In most accounts, Teller is the dastardly villain who declines to recommend Oppie for a renewal of his security clearance -- and Oppie forever after will be a hero to those who see this as a vast injustice. I hardly think it was all that big a deal. Oppie didn't go to jail, he didn't lose his job, he wasn't disgraced in the scientific community -- if anything his reputation and fame were enhanced.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on September 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book about one of the most controversial developments of the last century: the development of the atomic and then hydrogen bombs. At the core of the book are the three scientists - Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller - who had the greatest impact, both from the technical problems they confronted and from the political points of view they advocated. Though a bit rarified in terms of general interest as it focuses on science advisors, this for me was a fascinating recounting of the decisions that led to the arms race and eventually cost $5.5 trillion and produced 120,000 nuclear weapons. It also evokes with great eloquence the domestic repercussions of the cold war and paranoia of the 1950s.
Herken writes well, though at times his style was strange for me. For example, one person evaluated a speech with a "gimlet eye." (I had to look that up.) Nonetheless, Herken's writing is dramatic and fast paced, far far better than I would normally expect from an American academic.
Recommended with enthusiasm.
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