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The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How To Build an Atomic Bomb [Hardcover]

Robert Serber , Richard Rhodes
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 2, 1992 0520075765 978-0520075764 0
The classified lectures that galvanized the Manhattan Project scientists—with annotations for the nonspecialist reader and an introduction by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

In March 1943 a group of young scientists, sequestered on a mesa near Santa Fe, attended a crash course in the new atomic physics. The lecturer was Robert Serber, J. Robert Oppenheimer's protégé, and they learned that their job was to invent the world's first atomic bomb.

Serber's lecture notes, nicknamed the "Los Alamos Primer," were mimeographed and passed from hand to hand, remaining classified for many years. They are published here for the first time, and now contemporary readers can see just how much was known and how terrifyingly much was unknown when the Manhattan Project began. Could this "gadget," based on the newly discovered principles of nuclear fission, really be designed and built? Could it be small enough and light enough for an airplane to carry? If it could be built, could it be controlled?

Working with Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the development of the atomic bomb, Professor Serber has annotated original lecture notes with explanations of the physics terms for the nonspecialist. His preface, an informal memoir, vividly conveys the mingled excitement, uncertainty, and intensity felt by the Manhattan Project scientists. Rhodes's introduction provides a brief history of the development of atomic physics up to the day that Serber stood before his blackboard at Los Alamos. In this edition, The Los Alamos Primer finally emerges from the archives to give a new understanding of the very beginning of nuclear weapons. No seminar anywhere has had greater historical consequences.

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The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How To Build an  Atomic Bomb + The Making of the Atomic Bomb: 25th Anniversary Edition + Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb
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Editorial Reviews 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

About the Author

Robert Serber is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Columbia University. Richard Rhodes, author most recently of Farm (1989) and A Hole in the World (1990), won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987), all published by Simon and Schuster.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 98 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (March 2, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520075765
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520075764
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A nice source for fellow weapons nuts. April 28, 1999
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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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required reading--if you can handle the math. August 27, 1999
By A Customer
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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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating August 23, 2001
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book on the physics of the bomb January 14, 2004
By A Customer
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Los Alamos Primer January 12, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Technically sweet. April 21, 2008
By Josef
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! April 8, 2003
By A Customer
Excellent book, it takes a bit to stick with it, but the modern day excerpts/perspectives threaded into the book give it a good historical perspective. This is a good combo to go together with Richard Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun".
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 10 STARS! Essential reading September 24, 2001
- for anyone seriously interested in our nuclear heritage, weaponeering, or the NWEPS program. Gives INCREDIBLE insight as to the minds and directions these young physicists were going.
This book is a must-read. Simple, concise, straightforward technically. You gotta read it, 'nuff said.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book!
In case you are interested in the MP underlying physics and history of making of the first atomic bomb, I strongly recommend this book along with Cameron Reed, The Physics of the... Read more
Published 4 months ago by PR
4.0 out of 5 stars History, not a "How To" guide
The annotations cover some of what was learned later, corrections to the math, and the human context. This makes more interesting reading than the original handouts. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Los Alamos Primer, a primer most of all on the workings of the...
Serber's annotations are invaluable. A must read for students of the history of science. Essential to understanding the atomic age.
Published 17 months ago by James Qualls
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
An interesting look at the technical development that went into TRINITY. Serber does a good job of going back to the past and annotating the lectures given during the start-up of... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Out$$$
5.0 out of 5 stars not a bang but a whimper
ok i followed the directions to the letter but this thing just doesn't work plus my hair is falling out for some reason
Published 20 months ago by ( . )( . )
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read!
It was a total surprise to realize each and everyone of the Los Alamos team was handed the mimeographed primer prior to commencing their work in the lab. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Tom Oneill
3.0 out of 5 stars so so
At times it was too techincal for me but other times it was wonderful in its explaination of the early days at Los Alalmos. Read more
Published 24 months ago by sniper
4.0 out of 5 stars From the perspective of a beginner
This is not the book to teach you how the bomb was made (see Rhodes, Making of the Atom Bomb) but it does give you an idea of what the major theorists were thinking at the time... Read more
Published on December 20, 2011 by MV
4.0 out of 5 stars A snippet of history
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. Read more
Published on May 31, 2011 by D. Harley
5.0 out of 5 stars Learn from the Master
This is a good book for someone who already knows a little about modern physics in general or the making of an atomic bomb. Read more
Published on November 28, 2009 by Charles Dickens
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