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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Different Than Many Books on the Subject
The title of Jim Baggott's "The First War of Physics" can be taken in two ways. It can mean that World War II, with the development and use of atomic bombs, was the "first war" in which physics played such an overwhelmingly important role. Or it can mean that the development of the atomic bomb was the "first" of a series of "wars" among the physicists of rival nations,...
Published on February 20, 2011 by Terry Sunday

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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Fizzled
I had high hopes for this book based on its title. I have read several accounts of the development of atomic weapons, including Oppenheimer's biography, and was hoping for an comprehensive history of both US and world-wide developments. This book did not deliver.

Baggot touches on the biographies of some of the scientists involved, but stops short of examining...
Published on January 23, 2012 by Andy in Washington


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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Fizzled, January 23, 2012
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I had high hopes for this book based on its title. I have read several accounts of the development of atomic weapons, including Oppenheimer's biography, and was hoping for an comprehensive history of both US and world-wide developments. This book did not deliver.

Baggot touches on the biographies of some of the scientists involved, but stops short of examining their goals, reservations and internal conflicts. For example, Leo Szilard was one of the first physicists to see the potential of atomic weapons, and was a key figure in making Roosevelt aware of the dangers of not developing these weapons. He was as much responsible for the Manhattan project as anyone, and yet became a strong advocate for not using atomic weapons on civilian targets. Baggot makes only a superficial examination of the man and his conflicted thoughts.

The narrative makes frequent detours into peripheral issues not at all important to the topic. For example, there are a few pages devoted to the offensive and defensive strategies surrounding D-Day in Europe. None of this is even remotely tied to the atom bomb.

There is almost no mention of what went on at Los Alamos, other than brief mentions that the place even existed and lots of research happened there.

While there is quite a bit of discussion on the espionage efforts surrounding the USSR's penetration of the Manhattan project, there is scant detail to help the reader evaluate what happened. For example, the book relates that David Greenglass was a member of the Rosenberg spy ring, and passed details of the explosive "lenses" developed to contain and initiate fission explosions. But there is no analysis of how important or unimportant this information really was to the Soviets.

From other readings, I recall the US Justice department made this out to be a major act of treason, giving the USSR the benefit of years of R&D. The Soviet atomic scientists involved claimed it was of minor use to them, and relatively easily duplicated. Greenglass himself claimed that he altered the drawings before turning them over to the USSR. None of this was developed or further explained in this book. Wikipedia is more comprehensive.

The atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki about half-way through the book, and without much detail of what happened. The decision of whether to use the weapons or not, a fairly involved topic of politics, science, strategy is skipped over in a couple paragraphs. The second half of the book wanders aimlessly through the history of the late 1940's.

As for the mechanics, Baggot writes in an easy-to-read style. The facts that are included in the book seem well-researched, although what was excluded is significant.

In short, I'd say skip this book. There are others out there which do a much better job of describing the history and suspense of the first atomic weapons development. I would recommend American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, any of Richard Feynman's autobiographies, or The Making of the Atomic Bomb
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Different Than Many Books on the Subject, February 20, 2011
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Terry Sunday (El Paso, Texas United States) - See all my reviews
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The title of Jim Baggott's "The First War of Physics" can be taken in two ways. It can mean that World War II, with the development and use of atomic bombs, was the "first war" in which physics played such an overwhelmingly important role. Or it can mean that the development of the atomic bomb was the "first" of a series of "wars" among the physicists of rival nations, and was followed by other physics "wars" such as those for artificial earth satellites, electronic countermeasures, lasers, artificial intelligence, and so on. Regardless of how you interpret the title, "The First War of Physics" is interesting and well worth reading.

There is no shortage of books about the development of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Manhattan Project is covered in great detail in many works of varying accuracies. The story of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program is less well-known, but nevertheless has seen print ("Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956," by David Holloway, is probably the definitive treatment to date). The programs of Britain and France remain largely unreported at book-length because those countries still maintain strict secrecy about them.

The unique aspect of "The First War of Physics" is that it reports on virtually ALL developments that led to the first atomic bombs, regardless of where in the world they took place. Before and during World War II, experiments and theoretical studies in many nations advanced the "state of the art" of knowledge about how nuclear reactions could be used to create incredibly destructive weapons. Up until 1942, for example, British physicists were far ahead of their American counterparts in understanding how to build an atomic bomb. In fact, long before the Manhattan Engineer District (Manhattan Project), there was really no doubt that nuclear weapons were possible and practical. Many of their design features were well-understood. Not to denigrate the accomplishments at Los Alamos, but the work that some of the world's most eminent physicists performed there was basically engineering, development and testing, not basic research. They knew they could build a successful atomic bomb, in large part because of prior work done in Britain and Germany. It was "just" a matter of ironing out the details.

To emphasize the point, "The First War of Physics" includes a fascinating 22-page timeline chart, spanning the years from 1939 through 1948, showing nuclear developments in the U.S., Britain, France, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. I've never seen a chart like this in print before. It really shows the global extent of the efforts to harness nuclear energy, and illustrates the interrelationships of work performed by scientists worldwide. It's as good a "capsule" summary of the creation of atomic bombs as I've seen.

"The First War of Physics" is not exceptionally deep, but it IS quite complete, very accurate and exceptionally readable. Its global scope adds a new dimension to the story of early atomic weapons. Even if you have many other books on the subject in your library, I recommend it very highly. You're sure to learn something from it.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling read, June 30, 2010
By 
Joe Pardue "Smiley" (Hiding out near the Great Smokey Mountains) - See all my reviews
I was born about the time that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists first featured the Doomsday Clock and lived my formative years under the threat of nuclear annihilation. I can remember many times looking at a contrail in the sky and wondering if this was finally it? As a young adult I worked in Oak Ridge at the X-10 plant and got to see first-hand some of the artifacts of what Baggot calls `The First War of Physics'. I was in awe of the events that could have destroyed civilization. And I've often wondered how we managed not to destroy ourselves. Baggot's book is very well written and follows the important scientific, historical, and political events. His style flows well and at times makes the reading compelling almost like reading a novel. You see the ideas behind the science, the personalities that made the discoveries, and the truly frightening politics of the time. There are many events in this story that could easily lead to moralizing on the part of an author, but Baggot avoids the temptation and fairly expresses the concerns of the folks involved without taking a side. I strongly recommend this book.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best I've Read, August 4, 2010
By 
James Palmer (Minneapolis, MN USA) - See all my reviews
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I agree very much with the previous comments and conclusions of Joe Pardue "Smiley's" review. My only addition would be to say that over the years I have read a good deal about this subject in books by Norris, Herken, Groves, Groueff and Feynman. This is the most complete, and yet concise, version of the story including the efforts in Europe as well as in the United States. Best of all is his unbiased approach and resistance to making moral conclusions about this complicated subject. If I could ever get my son-in-law to read it he might understand all of the facts which lead to the difficult decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on atomic bomb (with lots of physics), September 2, 2011
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This review is from: The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949 (Paperback)
I've read other books on the atomic bomb, but this is the best. It's fantastically detailed and a good read. Baggott interweaves the stories of the atomic work in England, Germany, and the US (plus what leaks to Russia)

Others have complained about not enough physics, but one reason I like the book is it has more bomb physics than I have seen before. While there is no chapter on how to build a bomb, someone who knows the general physics of the bomb will pick up a lot of interesting little technical nuggets along the way. Examples: Heisenberg went with a suboptimum configuration in early piles because it lent itself to calculation. Production plutonium from reactors turned out to have a different mix of isotopes from tiny quantities of plutonium (not from a reactor) that had been used to obtain its characteristics. The shorter half life of one of the plutonium isotopes created by the neutron bombardment in the reactor forced the plutonium bomb design toward implosion. More detail than I have seen before on how the hydrogen bomb works. The reason why a hydrogen bomb at Bikini in 1954 had a far higher yield than expected (15 Mtons vs expected 5). It is true, as another reviewer pointed out, that even though the book is 500 pages the developments at Oak Ridge (& Hanford) are given relatively short shrift.

Reading this book sent me back to watch again the wonderful 1980 BCC series 'Oppenheimer', finally available on DVD. I noted some striking similarities between some scenes in the video, between Oppenheimer and Groves, and this book.

Finally I want to conclude with what Truman wrote in his diary after deciding to drop the bomb, but before it was dropped. Baggott doesn't comment on it, but I find it striking.

"I have told the Sec of War, Mr. Stimson (who is he writing this for?) to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the targets and not women and children. ... The target will be a purely military one... (p 325)

This is what, self delusional, a cop out? Did Truman not have the targets described to him? Did he not know that destruction was expected to extend three miles? Did he not look at a map? Did he not know that by then most Japanese cities had been systematically destroyed, with huge lose of civilian life, by massive fire bombing and that only a couple of cities remained untouched, because they had, in effect, been set aside to have a pristine target on which to try the atomic bomb?

In the Peter Prince's 'Oppenheimer' some of the same sort of double talk is indicated. He shows a meeting of an advisory committee on targeting that concludes that the target should be a war factory, but one that is closely surrounded by a lot of workers homes. Oh, yea!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Physics and history interwoven in a compelling narrative, January 3, 2012
By 
Nigel Kirk (Canberra, Australia) - See all my reviews
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This is a very thorough history from the early conjecture that energy might be liberated through the tapping of nuclear forces to the development of thermonuclear weapons by the US and the USSR. It is a history of the attendant physics and in that respect it is comprehensive and intelligible. Baggott's experience as a physicist and academic makes this an exceptional opportunity to learn though a compelling narrative.

As a history, "The First War of Physics" achieves something even greater. The politics, military action and espionage are catalogued with accuracy and compassion, but judgment is muted. Thorough treatment of partisan actions in Scandinavia, madmen in Hitler's and Stalin's fascist regimes, tensions between the military and scientific establishments, and cold war politics and political paranoia: these form the backdrop for a gripping narrative which presents facts, theories and possibilities. The actions and thinking of physicists such as Bohr, Heisenberg, Szilard, Oppenheimer and (to a lesser extent, unfortunately, Bohm) are researched thoroughly, reviewed and conclusions offered. Interpretation and judgment are largely left to the Epilogue where guilt is considered, including that to be shouldered by scientists. How the individual physicists have fared throughout the almost three decades is also reviewed. This presentation of the facts to the reader, and presentation of a final discussion, is totally appropriate for this topic and Baggott's extensive collation of information is rewarded. True, it's as much about history as physics, but it is a complete exposition on both accounts.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nice summary, May 23, 2014
This review is from: The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949 (Paperback)
Since so much has been written on the subject throughout the past 65 years, I wondered if this book had anything new to say. While I got it as a present when it came out, I left it in my bookshelf, until I recently decided to give it a chance. Although it may have some new material released after the fall of the Soviet Union, what I found most valuable about it is that it summarizes the development of the first nuclear weapons, giving proper weight to the effort in different countries. It also provides a useful time line of the events as an appendix. Being a war story, the author embeds it in the drama of the ongoing conflict, including the story of the Telemark heavy water plant sabotage by Norwegian commandos. It also reviews under a new light the much discussed German programme, which may be interpreted differently by different people. Was Werner Heisenberg an incompetent theorist hindering the efforts of more able experimentalists, such as Kurt Diebner? There are also interesting anecdotes concerning the design of the early "atomic piles," which explain, among other things, why the Germans gave up using graphite as a moderator, and instead gave such importance to the use of heavy water (they weren't aware that graphite was contaminated by boron during its production, which the Allies found out casually). In summary, although I do not think it replaces the series of books on the development of nuclear weapons written by Richard Rhodes, and multiple biographies on the protagonists, I found it enjoyable to read, and a recommend it as a reference source.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding detailed reading, February 22, 2014
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This review is from: The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949 (Paperback)
I'm a history fiend and especially love history on World War II. I've seen many Atom Bomb Documentaries and although great, none have been as detailed as this. I chose this for a book review from an approved list that my U.S. Government professor created. I am very satisfied with this selection because I was able to enjoy the assignment. I recommend this to all readers who love history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, March 31, 2014
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This review is from: The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949 (Paperback)
While not as good as the seminal "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes, it does offer some unique perspectives and is valuable for anyone trying to learn more about the nascent atomic arms development programs.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From A "Duck-and-Cover" Kid - Worth the Read, February 1, 2014
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This was a vey interesting read. It some times bogged me Down with specifics about the science that are beyond me, but I get the reason for the need to include the detail. The intense efforts required to make the needed timely progress and the description of the talents needed to make it happen are very well portrayed.
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The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949
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