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The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How To Build an Atomic Bomb 2nd Edition

4.7 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520075764
ISBN-10: 0520075765
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In April 1943, a young physicist named Robert Serber stood up before a small group of fellow scientists in a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and, as one attendee later recalled, began to speak in "a hazy, uncertain voice" about the project on which they would all be working. "The object," he said, "is to produce a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which the energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one or more of the materials known to show nuclear fission." That mechanism, of course, was the atomic bomb, which a little more than two years later would be used against Japan.

In the following weeks, Serber touched on many themes, racing to an array of chalkboards to scribble complex formulas and equations. Among other things, he addressed how big a bomb would need to be in order to achieve critical mass--between 13.5 centimeters and 9 centimeters, he calculated--and what the probability of premature detonation might be. (It was, he concluded, always a danger.) At the end of the series, his lecture notes, classified as top secret, were gathered and printed for distribution to later cadres of scientists who came to work at Los Alamos. Years after the war they were declassified, and Serber, who died in May of 1997, took the opportunity to reflect on his work and the strange culture of the laboratory, adding postscripts and other commentary reproduced in the present edition.

Serber's book is an important document in the history of science, and remains one of the most accessible introductions to nuclear physics ever written. (On that note, those who worry that it is all too easy to find bomb-building instructions in the library or on the Web should rest assured: these lectures were tough for the greatest theoretical physicists of the time to follow.) It all makes for provocative reading. --Gregory McNamee

From the Back Cover

In April 1943, at a new secret laboratory on a mesa in the high New Mexican desert, a crowd of the most brilliant young scientists in America heard five stunning lectures that summed up everything the world knew about how to build an atomic bomb. The lecturer was Robert Serber, a theoretical physicist and protege of J. Robert Oppenheimer; the laboratory was Los Alamos. Serber's lectures, assembled in note form and mimeographed, became the legendary LA-1, the Los Alamos Primer, the first document passed out to new recruits to the wartime enterprise, classified Secret Limited for twenty years after the Second World War and published here for the first time. Now contemporary readers can see just how much was known and how much remained to be learned when the Manhattan Project began. Would the "gadget", the atomic bomb, really work? How powerful would it be? Could it be made small enough and light enough to carry in a bomber? Could its explosive nuclear reaction be controlled? Working with Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the development of the atomic bomb, Professor Serber has annotated the Primer for the nonscientist. His preface, a lively informal memoir, vividly conveys the mingled excitement, uncertainty, and intensity the Manhattan Project scientists felt. Rhodes's introduction reviews the development of nuclear physics up to the day that Serber stood before his blackboard at Los Alamos and summarizes the work that followed. In this first published edition, the Los Alamos Primer finally emerges from the archives. No lectures anywhere have had greater historical consequences.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 98 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 2nd edition (March 2, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520075765
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520075764
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #105,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen M. St Onge on April 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
In 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer gathered six of the top theoretical physicists in the U.S. gathered in Berkeley to discuss how to go about making the first atomic bomb. One of them was Robert Serber. When Los Alamos opened in March, 1943, Serber gave a series of lectures based on that conference, so everyone would have a common frame of refernce for the work to come. They were then written up as Los Alamos publication #1, classified Top Secret, and given to every scientist joining the project. Here they are, with a nice introduction by Richard Rhodes, (author of THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB and DARK SUN: THE MAKING OF THE HYDROGEN BOMB; both recommended), and extensive annotations by Serber, covering (among other things) where they were right, were they were wrong, and how to discuss nuclear weapons in front of the contruction personal without them figuring out what you're talking about. Essential for anyone seriously interested in the Manhatten Project or The Bomb.
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This is an incredible book. This is originally a compilation of Robert Serber's notes he gave to incoming scientists at Los Alamos in the 1940s, explaining to them the purpose of the Manhattan Project and the expected means by which they would achieve their goal. This particular copy, courtesy of the University of California Press, contains not only an introduction by Mr. Richard Rhodes (author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb - strongly recommended), but notes throughout the Primer itself by Robert Serber. It is fascinating to read comments on a document by the man who wrote it many years afterward. Be warned: This is NOT a how-to book, and does require some basic knowledge of calculus and physics. It is, however, unbelievably interesting, and worth the cost to add it to your collection.
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Format: Hardcover
If you want to understand the bomb, there's no substitue for this book. I have a degree in physics with a decade of dust on it and found this presentation to be just within my understanding. If you don't know calculus and freshman physics, you're probably not going to understand it very well. If you do, it's fascinating.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a truly exciting book for people with the desire to understand bomb physics. This book consists out of the original lecture notes from a series of seminars given in 1943 to the bomb scientists at the start of the Manhattan Project. These lecture notes are clearly annotated so that a layman can understand the bomb. Although the book discusses mainly the knowledge of 1943, the clear annotations of the author comments also on the advances since 1943.
In this book you will learn to calculate the energy of an atomic bomb after already 5 pages using only one simple physical law (no, not Einstein!). When you are halfway in the book, you will understand the calculations of the critical mass.
However to fully appreciate the book, you need to have a basic understanding of mathematics and physics. (it would be nice if you know what a differential equation is.)
The book also contains several funny anekdotes which make it a truly astonishing reading.
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This book was a new addition to my library on 'Special Weapons'. I've had a long term interest in all things dealing with them. The Los Alamos Primer would have been a great purchase if it had simply consisted of the original lectures. The 4 men who contribute to this work have produced an important book.
Richard Rhodes introduced and edited (conducted) this book. I believe any book with his name attached, is worth a buy. I find his writing to be very clear and interesting.
Robert Serber, who gave the original lectures, does an excellent job of a literary 'voice over' on them. He explains, expounds, and fills out the basic lectures.
On top of what those 2 guys have made, this box of Cracker Jacks came with a very nice surprise. Included in this book are 2 old (1940-41) memorandums by Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch. These were instrumental in the notification of the Atomic potentials to the US/British governments. I have read about them, but never expected to read them. In 3 words- BUY THIS BOOK!
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This is a fascinating insight into what physicists were thinking at the time of building the bomb, together with a sometimes amusing retrospective by Robert Serber. Although it is technical in places the lectures were originally simplified to present the essential physics, which is perfectly accessible to any high-school graduate.

The Frisch-Peierls memorandum is a nice touch; after reading Serber's lectures it gives and idea of what others were thinking and where the major uncertainties lay.

The electronic version of the book loses a star due to the execrable editing; despite the steep price the publishers evidently decided none was necessary. The display equations are simply copy and paste images interspersed with improperly typeset inline math littered with errors. The original lecture extracts and Serber's commentary are in the same font and it's not always easy to tell which is which. A shoddy job, UCP.
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This book gives a brief and highly technical summary of what was known about nuclear fission in 1942 and how to go about turning this knowledge into a "practical weapon". Great fun to read if you have an engineering or physics degree or similar background knowledge. The author has extensively annotated and updated the terse original lecture notes that were given to new arrivals at Los Alamos. Interestingly, the annotations now take up more space that the original notes. These annotations may help to make the subject accessible to a non-technical audience as they provide invaluable historical and technical background. Invaluable for anyone interested in science history and/or the Manhattan Project.
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