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Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos during the Oppenheimer Years 1943-1945

12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521441568
ISBN-10: 0521441560
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Editorial Reviews


"This book fulfills its declared intention of providing an unprecedentedly full picture of all the actions and processes that were involved in bringing the bombs into existence." A. P. French, Nature

"Generally the presentation is clear and shows the care one expects of the four distinguished authors....The presentation can easily be followed by a scientific reader, and a non-scientist will get an interesting impression of the events." Rudolf Peierls, Science

"...provides detailed discussion of the many experiments that made up the project, including the implosion and gun assembly programs and the interesting consequences of spontaneous fission in reactor-produced plutonium and continues with details of the Trinity test and the actual dropping of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recommended as an important addition to any college or university library." Choice

"...draw[s] upon a full lode of primary data and explore[s] for the first time the methodology by which researchers at Los Alamos succeeded in their wartime mission. The authors successfully avoid the "official history" pitfall by focusing on individual contributions to scientific and technological advances as opposed to the usual summary of divisional achievements...a well-documented, concise, chronological review of the combination of nuclear physics, chemistry and metallurgy that produced the first fission weapons...also examines the impact of Los Alamos upon the methodology of "big science" at national laboratories in the postwar era." Peter Neushal, Physics Today

"...this is the most technical account of Los Alamos's war years to appear in considers Project Y's significant success in the use of 'big science' methodology....Critical Assembly is a masterful piece of technical writing accomplished by four authors in conjunction with six scientific advisors and editors....essential reading for technically-minded scholars interested in the history of Los Alamos, atomic research, and the development of modern research labs...." Richard Melzer, Western Historical Quarterly

"Critical Assembly has a lot to say about proliferation, much of it relevant to the present. Among other things, it provides a better foundation than ever for evaluating the problems facing countries (or terrorists) with nuclear ambitions." William Sweet, The Sciences

" indispensable book...." Barton C. Hacker, American Historical Review

"The book has the great merit of illustrating the depth and breadth of the scientific and technical problems faced by scientists in the laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico...This is an important book, for its insight into the enormously complex activities at Los alamos and, even more for its tantalizing survey of the implications of that research and development." Lawrence Badash, Journal of American History

"...the book certainly does bring together a lot of information that fleshes out the story." New Scientist

"...a notable and richly detailed work....Critical assembly sets a new standard for writings on wartime Los Alamos." Canadian Review of American Studies --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

This 1993 volume studies the technical research that led to the first atomic bombs. The authors explore how the 'critical assembly' of scientists, engineers, and military personnel at Los Alamos, collaborated during World War II to create a new approach to research. Readers will find this book a crucial resource for understanding the underpinnings of contemporary science and technology. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (January 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521441560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521441568
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 31, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book if you are a scientist, particularly if you are a physicist. This is a technical history of the Manhattan project at it relates to the work done at Los Alamos Lab leading to the first atomic explosions. You'll learn the fine details of the work as a scientist would recount them. You'll be amazed at the limited knowledge and instrumentation available at the time!!! You'll be surprised by the methods used to get things done in time! And you will be impressed by the
schedules and the accomplishments made in those years of hard -and we are told in details how and why it was hard- work!
If you have worked at a National Lab (and even if you haven't) you'll understand how the concept of the national laboratory came about by understanding the work in the early days of Los Alamos involving a fine interplay between the scientific, the engineering and the programmatic thrusts.
Recommending this book seems like an understatement. If you are a physicist, a chemist, a mathematician, a computer scientist you want to read this book and understand how they did it!
The only thing that could be improved in this book is possibly including a few diagrams. I am not sure whether that is because they might still be classified, but they must exist the archives at Los Alamos. And adding a diagram here and there would certainly be helpful to the reader. If there had to be a revised edition, that's where improvement could find a home.
I'd challenge the team that wrote this book to tackle other successes such as the history of Fermilab or SLAC for example. And not to shy away from a tougher one -not a success story- the history of the failed SSC project. Use some of that insight and record in a similar manner how science, engineering and a really fine mission (not equaled in the latter half of this century) sadly failed that time around...
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By B James on July 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Without doubt, this is the finest account of the technical aspects of the race to produce an atomic weapon at Los Alamos before the end of WWII. As other reviewers have noted, you don't need a degree in physics to read this book; however, you do need endurance.
"Critical Assembly" is a plodding, straightforward, chronological narrative of how talent and materials came together to make a bomb; a techno-nerd's dream. There is no attempt to delve into politics and ethics, make the characters "come alive" with interesting personal glimpses, or place it all in historical perspective. For that you need Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
Still, the authors did not write "Critical Assembly" to be a riveting historical novel soon to be a blockbuster movie. For technical information, it is the best single book available. To understand why anyone would care how the atomic bomb was made, let alone plod through the technical details, read "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" first.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Ronald C. Reynolds on July 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book is THRILLING in the scope and depth of its description of HOW the bomb was made. This was a unique historical event in that the best brains in the world, stimulated by a sense of extreem urgency and given, in effect, unlimited physical and financial resources accomplished in the space of three years somthing that in the 1930's was considered as Science Fiction.
The book is highly readable and understandable by non technical people. This book is proof that "once upon a time" we did things "Right the First Time" in this country. An outstanding historical and technical account of the "ultimate" invention.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The other review nicely describe this gem, but makes it sound like something only a scientist could understand. I'd just like to add that any intelligent person will have no trouble following this lucid account of the first two years of Los Alamos.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Peter Staric, PhD on January 22, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Hoddeson, Henriksen, Meade & Westfal
Critical Assembly, ISBN 0-521-54117-4
Cambridge University Press, 2004

The title of the book has double meaning. It denotes the critical assembly of uranium 235, or plutonium 239 to start the chain reaction in an atomic bomb. But it also points to the »critical« assembly of numerous scientists, engineers, technicians and US Army personnel. The authors described how in a race with time all these experts were pursuing a single objective: to make an atomic bomb before the Nazi scientists could (supposedly) do it. Each of them was working in his or her special field, but only a handful of the privileged ones knew they were making an atomic bomb. The resolute, competent and mercilessly hard driving conductor of this huge orchestra was General Leslie R. Groves; its concertmaster was the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. To carry on this parable, the musicians - with rare exceptions - were obliged to play their scores with plugged ears. The conductor allowed them to know only their own score, because the whole composition named MED (Manhattan Engineering District) must not become known before the end of the war.

Though the fission was discovered in Germany (in the winter 1938/39) many Jewish scientists, being suppressed under Nazi-fascist reign, had left Europe as soon as they could. Among them A. Einstein, H. Bethe, R. Peierls, C. Fuchs (unfortunately also a soviet spy), N. Bohr, E. Teller, E. Wiegner, L. Szilard, E. Fermi and J. von Neumann, to name just the most important ones, arrived in the USA, where they contributed essentially to MED. When Groves began leading the project, it started advancing like an avalanche. What in 1939 was deemed to be a science fiction has become a real bomb within just six years.
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