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The Making of the Atomic Bomb Paperback – August 1, 1995
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In rich, human, political, and scientific detail, here is the complete story of the nuclear bomb.
Few great discoveries have evolved so swiftlyor have been so misunderstood. From the theoretical discussions of nuclear energy to the bright glare of Trinity there was a span of hardly more than twenty-five years. What began merely as an interesting speculative problem in physics grew into the Manhattan Project, and then into the Bomb with frightening rapidity, while scientists known only to their peersSzilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Meitner, Fermi, Lawrence, and von Neumannstepped from their ivory towers into the limelight.
Richard Rhodes takes us on that journey step-by-step, minute by minute, and gives us the definitive story of mans most awesome discovery and invention. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is at once a narrative tour de force and a document as powerful as its subject.
About the Author
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (August 1, 1995)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 928 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0684813785
- ISBN-13 : 978-0684813783
- Item Weight : 2.55 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 2 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,041,618 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Top reviews from the United States
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I have always had keen interests in science and engineering. This book provided more than enough technical information to satisfy my thirst for it, and gave me many ideas about what kind of deeper information I might find interesting.
I grew up in a neighborhood near the University of California, San Diego campus and had the good fortune to know several scientists and engineers who contributed to the continued development of nuclear arms after the war, and even met and sat next to the late Herbert York in person on a plane flight once. My conversation with him focused largely on nuclear energy research and weapons. He was very kind and gracious.
When I picked up "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" I fully expected it to reinforce and enhance much of what I already knew about the history, and I am delighted to say that it exceeded my expectations in every way. It's obvious that Richard Rhodes put a tremendous amount of work in ferreting out information about the lives and times of the great physicists and other scientists who in a very short time advanced from figuring out the structure of atoms to deploying the most horrific weapons ever known, based on their new understandings of the nature of matter.
This book epitomizes how I wish more of history was documented. The author stuck with mostly factual information and, towards the very end, personal testimonials about the effects of the bomb on Hiroshima which I read with great pain, perhaps my penance for enjoying the technical information so much. The book has not changed my mind on the wisdom or morality of what the United States of America did at the end of World War II, rather it brought it into a sharper focus that I wish more people could see.
There are three things about the book which make it a timeless classic. The first is the sheer, staggering amount of meticulous research and attention to detail that Rhodes brings to his narrative. One simply marvels at the wealth of sources he must have plumbed and the time he must have spent in making sense of them, the mountains of material he must have assimilated and sorted and the number of people he must have interviewed. This book stands as a model of exhaustive research on any topic. A related aspect is the immense breadth and sweep of events, people and places that Rhodes covers. He paints on a canvas that's expansive enough to accommodate everything from quantum mechanics to the human psyche. In this book he doesn't just give us the details of the first atomic bombs but also holds forth on, among other things: the fascinating political and military personalities of the era (FDR, Truman, LeMay), a history of physics in the first half of the twentieth century, ruminations on war and peace including accounts and interpretations of key events during both World Wars, an account of anti-Semitism in Europe, the beginnings of "Big Science" in the United States, the psychological aspects of scientific personality, the moral calculus of bombing, the political history of Europe between the wars and the detailed engineering that went into building weapons of war. There are sections on each of these topics and more, and even the digressions are deep and riveting enough to temporarily immerse the reader into an alternative topic (for instance, a six page account on Jewish history and persecution transports the reader). Long paragraphs of direct quotation allow the characters to speak in their own words. What is remarkable is that Rhodes makes the material utterly gripping in spite of the extraordinarily broad coverage and the level of detail and holds the reader's attention from beginning to end through an 800 page work. This is an achievement in itself.
The second aspect of this book that makes it such a fantastic read is the elegant, clear explanation of the science. It is no easy feat to describe the work of Rutherford and Oppenheimer on nuclear physics while at the same time dissecting the political manipulations of Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet Rhodes accomplishes a beautifully simplified (but not oversimplified) version of the momentous scientific ideas developed during the early twentieth century. He seems to have read the original papers on the neutron, radioactive transformations and nuclear fission and these sources are thoroughly documented in the extensive bibliography; key experiments and theories unravel into clear explanations supported by quotes from the original participants. In fact the first half of the book would be a first-rate introduction to the development of atomic physics and the life and times of brilliant scientists like Fermi, Heisenberg, Rutherford, Bohr, Chadwick, Einstein and the Curies who contributed to this discipline. These remarkable scientists are really at the center of Rhodes's account and their personalities and work come alive under his pen. This was physics during its most glorious age of discovery and nobody knew just how enormously it would impact politics and society; indeed, one of Rhodes's goals is to demonstrate how even the purest of science can have the most far-reaching practical and social ramifications. The work of all these scientists is set in revealing detail against the backdrop of growing anti-Semitism and political turmoil in Europe, and their subsequent emigration to the United States and England constitutes a very important chapter in this story. But the introduction of nuclear energy was primarily an act of science, and Rhodes excels in describing this science in patient and marvelous detail.
Finally, what ensures this book's place in history is Rhodes's mesmerizing prose, of the kind employed by the select few historians and novelists like Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Herodotus who opened our eyes to world-changing historical events and to the human condition. In Rhodes's hands the making of the atomic bomb turns into an epic tale of triumph and tragedy akin to the Greek tragedies or the Mahabharata. He brings a novelist's eye to his characters and portrays them as actors in a heroic drama of victory and woe; a great example is the unforgettable opening paragraph of the book in which the physicist Leo Szilard first thinks of a chain reaction while waiting for a traffic light in London. The leading lights of the narrative are Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer, brilliant men who also saw deep into the future. And there are many others, human beings laid bare in all their glorious folly, frailty and greatness, struggling to comprehend both natural and human forces. There are no saints and sinners here, only complex humans struggling to understand and control forces that are sometimes beyond their immediate comprehension, often with unintended consequences. Rhodes relentlessly drives home the point that man's greatest gifts can also be the cause of his greatest evils. He makes it clear that science, politics and human nature are inextricably linked and you cannot perturb one without perturbing the other. Taming this combustible mix will be a struggle that we will always grapple with.
I first read "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" about fifteen years ago and consider it the most influential book I have ever come across. I am a scientist and the book completely changed my understanding of the inextricable relationship between science and society. Since then at any given moment I have about three copies of the book on my shelf, ready to be lent or gifted to anyone I feel might be interested. I consider it one of the best chronicles ever written about what human beings are capable of, both as creators and destroyers. In the making of the atomic bomb are lessons for all of humanity.
Top reviews from other countries
The book is at its best while telling the story of the Scientifics. Fermi, Einstein, Oppenheim, etc. are very well described, and their confluence at the Manhattan Project is superb. The last 100 pages approximately, when the day to drop the first atomic bomb approaches is worthy of a thriller - impossible to put down.
Just one "but" (thus four stars only). In some occasions the book goes too deep into physics. It is as the author (who has done a magnificent research) thinks all his readers do know the same amount of that science. Thus, some pages, crowded with science jargon, are simply impossible to understand.
A very good book anyway, well worth a slow and long read.
My other complaint is that the paperback book is physically too big & heavy (at 838 pages) to be easily read when on public transport, in the bath etc. I actually cut mine in two with a sharp knife and now it's much better. It should have been sold in 2 volumes for ease of reading. Maybe the hardback was, I don't know...
My only complaint is that it was marred by what became a very irritating misuse of the apostrophe. The book is littered throughout with errant apostrophes which the author and certainly the proofreader ought to have picked up.