The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes

Dating from 1986, this is a massive (near 800 pages) popular history of the World War II atomic bomb project. The focus is on the American effort, though there are brief detours into German and Japanese nuclear research. There’s also substantial background material on nuclear physics beginning with J. J. Thomson in the 1890’s.

The book takes the stories of Leo Szilard and Neils Bohr as central threads in the overall story. Bohr’s importance develops from his philosophical idea of “complementarity”, by which he not only subjugated the wave-particle duality, but also other apparently contradictory but ultimately complementary ideas such as super weapons and world peace. Throughout the book, complementarity is a standard against which the ideas of other physicists are compared.

In the case of Szilard, Rhodes credits him as one of the first to recognize the potential power to be released by nuclear physics, and its possible impact on human politics. From early days, and taking his inspiration in part from H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel The World Set Free, Szilard advocated a world government (obviously never realized, but still promising as the books story closed in the 1950’s) as the only way to control the vastly dangerous new technology predicted to emerge from the atomic nucleus.

Of course, there’s also plenty of detail on the Manhattan Project itself. And, mostly to show that the Americans were much further ahead of their competition than they realized, a few glimpses at vastly smaller and less well-funded German and Japanese bomb programs. The vast effort needed to extract the fissionable material from endless tons of raw uranium could only have been accomplished by the industrial powerhouse USA at that time. And its (somewhat) comforting to consider whether even today a “rogue state” could actually accumulate nuclear weapons in any quantity, although its also a frightening thought how much technology might have improved in the past 60 years.

An epilogue describes the beginnings of the nuclear nonproliferation efforts of the physics community, as well as continuing weapons work following the war, up to the point of the first Soviet a-bomb explosion and the first American h-bomb tests.

The important role of the bomb in ending World War 2, the potential ramifications if events had come out differently (what if the first nuclear war had involved not two weapons, but dozens or hundreds?) , and the influence of the bomb on the remainder of 20th century history, make this an important history to understand. And indeed the new danger, mostly unforseen in 1986, of smaller states obtaining nuclear weapons means this history is still relevant today, and this book is an excellent introduction covering the topic in both great breadth and also substantial depth.

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