On most lists of all time best popular science books you’ll find Richard Rhodes’ majestic history The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Begun deep in the cold war in 1978 and published in 1986 to wide critical acclaim, it remains the authoritative account of fundamental scientific discoveries that ‘changed the structure of human affairs – permanently.’
Necessarily the work is part history, part popular science and part biography, touching on most of the household names in twentieth century physics from Rutherford and Curie to Einstein, Bohr, Teller and Oppenheimer. The scope of the history too is grand, covering social, political and of course military history as well. The number of themes, people, discoveries and events that need to be described and drawn together in this narrative is truly daunting. That Rhodes succeeded on so many levels is reason enough for the book to be considered a classic.
Appropriately Leo Szilard opens the story. Though many others before him had considered the potential of atomic energy perhaps no one better or more presciently understood its implication for industrial or military applications. Szilard read in 1933 of Rutherford’s pronouncement that anyone looking for a power source in the transformation of atoms was ‘talking moonshine’ and it appears to have brought about something of an epiphany in Szilard. Crossing a London street:
“it… suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction, … In certain circumstances it might be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction, liberate energy on an industrial scale, and construct atomic bombs.”
From this opening vignette Rhodes then backtracks and turns to the story of the atom itself and the key discoveries of the first four decades of the twentieth century following J. J. Thompson’s discovery of the electron in 1897. It is a story revealing the cumulative, cooperative nature of scientific progress: Rutherford’s elegant experiments in Manchester that detected the atom’s nucleus; Heisenberg, Born and Schrödinger formulating quantum mechanics in the mid-twenties, Chadwick’s dedicated, exacting experiments that led him to discover the neutron in 1932; the fantastic tale of the first nuclear fission in Germany in 1938 in experiments conducted by Otto Hahn but not fully recognised for what they were until the results were reviewed by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch.
The story of how Meitner and Frisch came to work on that famous paper is one of fortune and coincidence – the forces of history acting on individuals with profound consequences. Later there is Fermi, creating the first nuclear pile in a squash court beneath the University of Chicago – the pile itself assembled by members of the football squad, chosen as much for their availability as for their physical strength. Rhodes quotes Fermi:
“..it was really a pleasure for once to direct the work of these husky boys, canning uranium – just shoving it in – handling packs of 50 or 100 pounds with the same ease as another person would have handled three or four pounds.”
Rhodes writes with a simplicity and detail that creates a real intimacy with the experimenters; the reader positioned as witness to history. He creates beautiful pen portraits of the large cast of individual players in the story; we understand their life stories and the heavy choices forced upon them. Rhodes also draws out the tension between international cooperation and the ethical questions raised by the key discoveries – and by their publication. The rise of Nazism and the start of the war in Europe are more than the background to this history – it is the stuff of life for all the scientists involved. As war began and the 1930s drew to a close, many increasingly worried about the effect of publication. Szilard, meanwhile, considered the prospect of Germany winning the race to create an atomic bomb.
Like many of the scientists fleeing Nazism in Europe, the story inevitably moves to the United States where at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory Ernest Lawrence built the world’s first particle accelerator – the cyclotron. Within the community of physicists around the globe, knowledge was increasing at an increasing rate. Rhodes takes time to deliver the narrative in detail despite its scope. Throughout, he follows the progress of atomic research in Germany, Japan and Russia as well as in Britain, western Europe and the United States. The years between Thompson’s discovery of the electron in 1897 and the formation of the Manhattan Project in 1942 take more than half of the book’s length.
The largest project management task in history begins with the appointment of General Leslie R. Groves and his subsequent, controversial choice of Robert Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project. This part of the story may be considered largely engineering, but it is never allowed to be just that in Rhodes’ hands. The story is imbued with politics, the conflicting interests of the players involved, the pressure to solve vast technical problems in tiny timeframes, questions of espionage and loyalty, the day to day life for families at Los Alamos and, of course, the progress of the war. Constantly one is reminded of the daunting, unparalleled scale of the operation.
President Roosevelt, who had given approval for development of the atomic bomb, died before the first test at Trinity. One can only imagine the culture shock of President Truman on being briefed about the bomb on assuming the presidency. To be told, in effect, that the nature of matter is not what you thought it was, and that we can unmake it too.
The final events that led to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the steps in international politics and bureaucracy where, one by one all opportunities to avert the disaster were lost, are detailed with grim starkness: we all know how the story ends.
Here again Rhodes makes us the intimate witness to history: he lets survivors speak of the moments after the bomb dropped. In dozens of brief survivor accounts he builds an overwhelming and much layered portrait of atrocity. Rhodes, who in eight years of writing had a source for every event, is almost apologetic at being unable to deliver an account of the impact of the bomb:
“Closer still, in the heart of the city, no one survived to report the coming of the light; the constrained witness of investigative groups must serve instead for testimony.”
“The world of the dead is a different place from the world of the living and it is hardly possible to visit there. That day in Hiroshima the two worlds nearly converged.”
The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a magnificent synthesis of history, biography, science and erudition. Its place as a classic seems assured.