The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

“It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” – Robert Oppenheimer.

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:

“ 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.



The stories in our genes

Pitching popular science writing with the right balance must be fiendishly tricky. Making the complex accessible to a general reader necessarily means simplifying matters. And of course oversimplifying carries its own dangers and can perpetuate misunderstandings that plague science reporting in tabloid media. Perhaps this is true nowhere more than in genetics where too often lazy reporting and the exaggerated claims of commercial interests meet.

Adam Rutherford’s entertaining and often very funny book gets it right time after time. He is always at pains to be clear and not to mislead by oversimplifying. Pedantic clarification could be tedious but Rutherford is too good a writer not to anticipate this and instead delivers the message with clarity – and often self-deprecating humour. Speaking about the claims that living descendants of the Queen of Sheba had been traced by a private ancestry company, Rutherford writes:

Can we say she definitely existed? Not really. If she did, can we say that everyone is descended from her? I wish I could give a more academic answer, but a frown and a shrug is the best I can manage.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is a book in two parts. The first part is a potted history of human DNA, from the time when Homo sapiens shared the planet with other human species; the second half of the book looks at what genetics can tell us (and what it can’t tell us) about ourselves and our species.

It’s ambitious material to cover for the general reader and touches on so many hot topics: race, determinism, genetics and violent crime and heritability. Rutherford’s discussion of each produces a measured view, derived from evidence but not leaping into speculation or letting the reader run away with the wrong idea.  As he writes, “A continuing theme of this book is the limits to what genes can tell about us.”

Rutherford writes with a light touch to inform and uses the book’s own typography as a metaphor to explain some aspects of the genetic code. The complex and still unravelling story of human migration out of Africa is detailed here with all its nagging complication. Rutherford selects some great set pieces to tell his story. I found myself thinking “I’m enjoying this bit” a lot: Neanderthal DNA, the genetics of the plague, Charlemange, King Richard the Third and Jack the Ripper, the genetics of earwax, inbreeding among the Spanish Hapsburgs. And don’t ever skip the footnotes. Not only is there relevant and interesting detail down there, but some of the best jokes are too.

Along the way he corrects a lot of assertions you might have seen or heard elsewhere about genetics, human evolution and inheritance. The section on heritability is a beautifully clear piece of science writing. Also welcome is the slightly corrective tone on epigenetics:

… a fascinating, essential part of biology, still in its infancy, worthy of serious, scrutiny-rich research. It is not magic or new, not heretical, and it won’t upend Darwin or gift you supernatural powers over your life and fate.

Although keen to be accurate and clear Rutherford wisely allows some of the personal to intrude. We read a little of his own experience of racism, his nuanced views on Francis Galton and eugenics and the moving account of the ‘hideous Nazi experiment’ known as the Hongerwinter.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is great popular science writing. Enlightening, engaging and entertaining.

Theoretical physics, practical ethics

It would be fair to say Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself is an ambitious work.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist who writes elegantly with clarity and good humour about big questions we probably associate more with philosophy than with physics.

As a physicist Carroll subscribes to naturalism, the view that:

“…there is only one world, the natural world, exhibiting the patterns we call the ‘laws of nature’, and which is discoverable by the methods of science and empirical investigation. There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine; nor is there any cosmic teleology or transcendent purpose inherent in the nature of the universe or in human life.”

Yet Carroll coins the term ‘poetic naturalism’ to describe his own approach. The word poeticreminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world.’

The Big Picture is not without its own wry humour, mostly by way of parenthetical remark. ‘(As of this writing, Mars is the only planet to be inhabited solely by robots.)’.  I often found myself thinking of lines from Douglas Adams or Gary Larson cartoons that might have complemented the text.

Carroll takes us through a potted history of the naturalist view from Galileo and Ibn Sina to Laplace, Descartes and Thomas Bayes. Bayesian reasoning becomes a major theme throughout the book. The more recent the scientific history gets, the harder the ideas become to grasp. The details of quantum mechanics, alas, escape me but Carroll is a gentle and friendly guide and his main argument is always much broader than the scientific detail.

Emergence is another important theme. In an illuminating passage Carroll writes about Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The canvas and paint are just atoms in particular locations.

“Van Gogh didn’t infuse it with any form of spiritual energy; he put the paint onto the canvas.” … “But it’s obvious that specifying an arrangement of atoms isn’t the only way of talking about this physical artefact, and it’s not even the best way for most purposes.”

As Carroll points out, the mood the painting evokes, the effect of the colour palette and the swirling sky are ‘emergent properties’.

Carroll gives us a more detailed example of emergence in the discussion of two ways of thinking about the air in the room. Air is a gas which we can think of, usefully, as a continuous fluid, but at the microscopic level air is composed of atoms and molecules. Specifying the state of each molecule at each point in time is one description; describing its macroscopic properties as a fluid is another. Yet both are accurate and describe ‘the same underlying reality’. Carroll’s discussion of these two ways of talking – both valid, useful and mutually consistent – is wonderfully clear, science writing.

The early parts of the book take us through what we know of the universe and how we know it. In his discussion of ontologies Carroll gives due weight to reason and the scientific method as we might expect but he is never dogmatic.

“By its nature, science needs to be completely open to the operation of the world, and that means that we stand ready to discard any idea that is no longer useful, no matter how cherished and central it may once have seemed.”

This reminded me, of Darwin in his Autobiography:

“I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved…as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”

In one sense though, all this history of ontologies is but throat clearing before getting to what Carroll really wants to address. It amounts to the challenge of mapping our understanding of the nature of the universe to the very different daily lived experience of being in it.

“Can we make sense of consciousness and our inner experience without appealing to substances or properties beyond the purely physical? Can we bring meaning and morality to our lives, and speak sensibly about what is right or wrong?”

Carroll runs through contemporary theories of evolution by natural selection and the origin of life and how this work helps us understand how complexity emerges. We get a tour of neuroscience and modern philosophy through the work of Alan Turing, John Searle and Daniel Dennett. I kept recalling the Larson cartoon in which one amoeba berates another – “Stimulus response! Stimulus response! Don’t you ever think?”

The final section of the book is titled ‘Caring’ and is more personal. Building on the many ideas of those others he has read and absorbed, Carroll presents us with his own conclusions. He ends with a recollection of his late grandmother which is both perfectly ordinary and very moving.

Classic audiobooks

For some readers, listening to a work of literature seems like a lazy way out. Not exactly like watching the movie instead of reading the book for school, but maybe next door to it.

Quite a few audiobooks though, are recorded by some of the best actors around. Artists with classical stage and voice training who know what they are doing. Combine talent like this with a good book and the result can be wonderful. Here are a few of my favourites.


Middlemarch by George Eliot – read by Juliet Stevenson

I am starting at the top. Stevenson delivers the perfect narration for this classic; no one need ever try again. It is no small undertaking. The novel has a massive cast and takes its time to fully develop the complicated individuals who populate Middlemarch. Stevenson distinguishes the voice of each character only enough for us to know who is speaking, never lapsing into a performance. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, critic Laurie Winer says of Juliet Stevenson “The lilt of her neutral voice is so close to the soul of Eliot — reasoned, patient, seeing everything, missing nothing.

You can listen to a sample at the Amazon website and catch Stevenson reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 on YouTube.


Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane – read by Stephen Rhea

Seamus Deane’s novel about growing up, and out of, Northern Ireland in the 1950s is realised perfectly by Stephen Rhea’s droll, understated performance. This is a beautiful book, with the intensity of remembered experience and moments of pure joy in the language. For the maths class scene alone – once read, never forgotten – this is worth the price of admission.


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – read by Susannah Harker.

There are so many truly bad readings of Jane Austen they (almost) outnumber the bad films. The readings seem cursed by a belief among narrators that one’s very poshest, most English voice must be clearly declaimed for each and every character. Awful. The best audio versions are said to be by Juliet Stevenson and this is probably true. Susannah Harker’s Sense and Sensibility, though, is pretty special. Her measured tone adds little in expression and does not need to, taking, like Austen, the storyteller’s role and keeping up the pace. Harker has a lighter, perhaps more youthful tone than Stevenson, and this suits the lighter material of this novel nicely. Sadly, this appears to be the only of Austen’s novels recorded by Susannah Harker.


1984 by George Orwell – read by Samuel West

All of the Samuel West audiobooks I have heard have been very good but this is his best. West is an actor blessed with a great voice and it is used to wonderful effect here. His Winston is almost always on edge. O’Brien is assured, urbane and menacing. Somehow West gets both Julia’s voice and her pragmatic character just right. Inevitably, this is not an easy book to listen to at times, but a rewarding one nonetheless.


Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds – read by John Lee

And now for something completely different. This is hard science fiction, but there are wonderfully drawn characters here too. Reynolds is famous for creating strong female characters and much of this book follows the growing relationship between two very different women, Ana Khouri and Ilia Volyova. John Lee’s gift for accents shines here. His authoritative narration provides both weight and wry wit to the action and much entertainment in delivering the dialog that sparks between the two women. Great fun.

Booker meets Dagger

I picked up Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, struck by the fact that it was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award.

Strange, disturbing and bleak it’s also moving and, at times, shockingly funny. Among lots of great reviews here’s Patrick Anderson’s take, writing in The Washington Post.

The Pigeon Tunnel

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life by John le Carré
Viking, 2016.

img_0758There’s nothing to add really – these memoirs have been reviewed expertly by Robert McCrum, in The Guardian, and Walter Isaacson in The New York Times.

Le Carré places his account of his father, the abusive conman Ronnie, at the end of the book rather than the beginning, ‘because, much as he would like to, I didn’t want him elbowing his way to the top of the bill’.

Continue reading “The Pigeon Tunnel”

The Apgar Score

img_0757One of the pleasures of reading non-fiction is to come across some quirk of history you’ve never heard of before. It’s the sort of thing that leads to me starting conversations with ‘Hey, did you know …

In his 2007 book Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande tells lots of these stories – including the story of the number given to almost every newborn baby in hospitals across the world.

Continue reading “The Apgar Score”