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The Making of the Atomic Bomb Paperback – August 1, 1995
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If the first 270 pages of this book had been published separately, they would have made up a lively, insightful, beautifully written history of theoretical physics and the men and women who plumbed the mysteries of the atom. Along with the following 600 pages, they become a sweeping epic, filled with terror and pity, of the ultimate scientific quest: the development of the ultimate weapon. Rhodes is a peerless explainer of difficult concepts; he is even better at chronicling the personalities who made the discoveries that led to the Bomb. Niels Bohr dominates the first half of the book as J. Robert Oppenheimer does the second; both men were gifted philosophers of science as well as brilliant physicists. The central irony of this book, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, is that the greatest minds of the century contributed to the greatest destructive force in history.
From Publishers Weekly
This winner of the NBCC, NBA and Pulitzer prizes is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the hardcover publication of Rhodes's new book, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
"The Making of the Atomic Bomb" is a richly detailed epic, a table-shaking beast of a book that frequently sent me on evening walks to ponder and process the last few chapters I'd read. This is more than just a book about Hiroshima, Oppenheimer, and the Manhattan Project. We get an in-depth look at the early history of atomic physics, the personalities of key scientists, politicians, and military leaders, the complex political and military issues surrounding the bomb's development and use, and the historic and social events that shaped its creation. This is NOT a beach read - better put aside two weeks and plenty of undivided attention before tackling it!
I first read this book back in 2001, and I was totally enthralled by it, devouring it from cover to cover in four days. Having read it four times since then, some cracks have formed in its facade. Namely, it feels like two books grafted together - a decent one on the early history of nuclear physics, and an enthralling one on the actual making of the atomic bomb. The first 250 pages, while perhaps essential, tend to get bogged down by Rhodes' occasionally self-indulgent scene-setting (do we really need to know what shape the windows were?) and rather heavy philosophizing. Things pick up immensely with the actual discovery that the Uranium atom can be split, but I can see why some people give up early on. The "making of" is told with a remarkable lack of sensationalizing and sermonizing, and as horrific as the accounts of the actual bombings are, Rhodes is remarkably nonjudgmental about the bomb's use. People looking for pointed criticisms or historical revisionism will probably be disappointed; although Rhodes clearly abhors war, he seems to view Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the inevitable climax of an increasingly savage conflict against an enemy which refused to surrender. Considering how emotionally charged most books on nuclear weapons are, I actually admired Rhodes' somewhat pragmatic approach. Then again, it might leave others cold and confused.
Although it's not the flawless masterpiece I once held it as, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" is still a pretty solid tome. It's big, multi-layered, thought-provoking, darkly funny, disturbing, richly detailed, philosophical... and just a tad over-rated. The first third is somewhat rough going, and, in retrospect, could have used some careful editing. The last 500 pages, however, are among the best history writing I've ever read. If the early history of nuclear weapons and nuclear physics fascinates you, give it a shot. You just need some patience going in.
- The science: it takes you on a journey from the discovery of the nucleus, through quantum physics, all the way up to the dropping of the bomb.
- The people: everyone involved in the project was extraordinary in their own right. The back stories of the scientists involved are incredible and you get to know them as people and not just historical figures. You also learn a lot about the military personnel involved
- The project: the Manhattan project itself was astounding. You find out that it was not this ultra-organized, highly planned endeavor -- they were figuring it out as the went along
- The war: I love learning about World War Two and this book doesn't disappoint. The strategy of the bomb, the top-secret operations, the Germans' parallel atomic project -- all of this is covered in great detail and makes you appreciate just how high the stakes were.
I was astonished to realize a mere 20-25 years before Hiroshima, physicists did not understand the structure of the atom--two of its three fundamental component parts--the proton and the neutron were as yet unknown. A brilliant, international clan led by Britain and Germany inspired themselves and others with discoveries that exponentially added to our knowledge, their achievements and ironically to mutual destruction. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a forthright defense of science. The author rightly disdains those who would keep knowledge under wraps because their fellow humans aren't to be trusted with its uses. But he also takes a hard look to at the compromises and self-delusion that seem to go hand in hand with discovery.
Among his multitude of accomplishments Rhodes makes physics and the scientific process of those devoted to it, understandable to non-scientific minds. I will not pretend The Making of the Atomic Bomb is without its challenges. On many occasions I had to circle back to fully understand the discoveries, which after 1930 seem to explode like the nuclei they mapped. Occasionally I felt as though I were back in a college classroom. And yes, some things I only partially grasp. That however, is on me, not the author, who respects his readers enough not to dumb it down. If my understanding is imperfect, it is sufficient to be in absolute awe of the intelligence and talent that adorned the fields of chemistry and physics from the 1920s-1940s.
The scientists herein are almost as riveting as their revelations. Some familiar (Einstein, Bohr, Fermi and Oppenheimer) are colorfully and admiringly portrayed. Others I had never heard of but also fascinating grace these pages. Rutherford, Meitner, Chadwick, Szilard and Seaborg are names I never heard of before but will now long remember. Throughout its pages they come alive as generous, covetous, egotistical, humble, brash, hard-nosed and idealistic. Their ambitions, successes and near-misses are wonderfully well told making their theories and discoveries more amazing still.
While theories and discoveries are nurtured in labs and weaned in professional discussion, science is practiced in the real world. Those scientific ideals clashed with the reality of nations ravaged by German fascism and the imperialism of Japan. Even the most stout-hearted determination of the Bohrs or Szilards never stand a chance against the resolute determination of a public, military and government bent upon revenge. However, to be not guilty is not the same as to be innocent. Rhodes makes clear more then a few who participated in the perfection of weapons and nuclear bombs are guilty of deluding themselves, caught up in the 'casus belli' that swept the nation.
Following the elation of success at Alamogordo is the "success" of Hiroshima that is chronicled in descriptions of the horror told by its survivors. The nightmare of destruction unfolds in snippets of reminiscence that are among the most gut-wrenching passages I have ever read. Rhodes interrupts our admiration of intellectual discovery to witness its uglier consequence. The dirty side of a coin only half pristine. He brings readers down from the clouds where planes drop bombs to see what is wrought on the ground. In doing so he makes science and mankind both amazing and awful.
A tremendous book.