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The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard…

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (original 1986; edition 1995)

by Richard Rhodes

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Title:The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Authors:Richard Rhodes
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The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (1986)

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    Lawrence and Oppenheimer by Nuel Pharr Davis (gneimer)
    gneimer: An interesting biography of two men who helped shape the atomic era. Rhodes pulls quite a bit of information from this book. A study in contrast between Lawrence and Oppenheimer.

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The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a sweeping account of the half-century of scientific discovery and technological progress that culminated in the Manhattan Project, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the end of the Second World War. While the primary focus is on the scientists and engineers whose work, intentionally or otherwise, made the Bomb possible, Rhodes also devotes ample space to the historical, military, political and ethical context of the weapon.

The story of the discovery and application of nuclear energy begins, appropriately enough, with the discovery of the atomic nucleus by New Zealander Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge University. Rutherford's discovery led to a chain of further discoveries, experiments, theories and refinements by scientists all over the world. Rhodes profiles each major player in turn, giving a human face to the men and women who advanced our knowledge of matter and energy, among them Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick, Hans Geiger, Werner Heisenberg, Leo Szilard, Ernest Lawrence, and Robert Oppenheimer. The author's account demonstrates the incredibly open and productive workings of the "Republic of Science." A theory formulated at Cambridge might be tested by an experimenter in Rome, the results appraised in Berlin, discussed in Stockholm, leading to a refinement of the theory in Copenhagen which would be confirmed by experiment in Paris. This state of transnational cooperation, yielding amazing progress in the most challenging areas of inquiry, continued right up to the brink of war in 1939.

The first person to voice the idea of using nuclear energy as a weapon was H. G. Wells in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. The first scientist to visualize a path to realizing such a weapon was Leo Szilard, a Hungarian emigre living in London. In 1933 the idea came to him that it should be possible to find an isotope whose nucleus, when struck by a single neutron, would release two neutrons, thus creating a self-sustaining chain reaction and releasing large amounts of energy in the process. Szilard and other scientists saw nuclear power as the primary application of this idea, but he was immediately aware that it had the potential to become the weapon that Wells had predicted. Szilard used Wells's novel to illustrate his theory, saying that "the forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists." He even filed a patent application for the concept of the atomic bomb with the British Patent Office--all this before the discovery that Uranium was the element with the right properties to make his theory a reality. And it was Szilard, now working in the United States, who first realized in 1939 that the open sharing of scientific discoveries, so vital to the progress made so far, had to come to an end. It was the sudden silence of American nuclear physicists that alerted the world that the theoretical release of atomic energy might be technologically feasible. The scientists of other nations alerted their governments, and one by one they fell silent like lights going out all over the world.

Rhodes follows not only the American Manhattan Project, but wartime research in other countries as well. Germany had at one time a two-year lead on the Allies in nuclear research, but Hitler failed to grasp its potential and gave it a very low priority. The Germans were more interested in developing nuclear propulsion for U-boats. The fear of a Nazi Bomb, however, continued to motivate American and British research until the collapse of Germany itself. The USSR and Japan also had nuclear research programs, but they realized quite early that the resources necessary to construct a weapon were beyond their reach.

The scope and effectiveness of the Manhattan Project itself continues to stagger the imagination. Vast factories assembled almost overnight in Tennessee and Washington using technologies invented on the spur of the moment and operated by armies of workers all combined to extract materials so rare that thousands of tons of ore and years of work resulted in mere handfuls of U 235 and Plutonium. But those handfuls, placed in bombs designed on a remote mesa in New Mexico, would change the course of history. And the whole project was such a carefully kept secret that even the Vice President of the United States was unaware of it until fate handed him the presidency and the responsibility for the ultimate weapon.

The author places the atomic bomb in a broad historical context. He reviews the development and use of poison gas in World War I as background for the moral issues of nuclear war. He also describes in gruesome detail the fire bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo--attacks comparable to the atomic bomb in destruction and casualties, and raising similar ethical questions. But not to ignore the special horrors of nuclear war, the book concludes with a nightmarish litany of first-hand accounts of the death, destruction and suffering in Hiroshima.

Rhodes gives full voice to both sides of such questions as whether the atomic bomb should ever have been developed, whether it should have been used, and whether it has been a force for good or evil in the world. He points out in his new introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of his book that in the first half of the twentieth century the world saw violent death on an unprecedented scale--scores of millions of people killed by war and its attendant violence. In the almost 70 years since Nagasaki, however, the number of deaths by war worldwide has been orders of magnitude fewer. Perhaps the atomic bomb did actually make total war unthinkable as many of its developers hoped it would. Nonetheless it was Leo Szilard, the man who patented the atomic bomb, who said after Hiroshima "The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls."

There is much to learn and even more to ponder in this magnificent history. ( )
8 vote StevenTX | Mar 7, 2014 |
One of the most important stories in the world. ( )
  Ryan_Dally | Aug 4, 2013 |
A long history worth reading. Richard Rhodes introduces us to dozens of physicists, generals, politicians and business leaders. All corroborate in what could be one of the greatest monumental scientific and engineering feats ever accomplished.

Neils Bohr is a key figure as he early on sees that the power unleashed will change the course of mankind and pushes for the secrets of atomic power to be openly shared worldwide.

for anyone interested in history, science and WW II this is a masterpiece. ( )
  berthirsch | Apr 7, 2013 |
The grand, encyclopedic, epic story of the atomic bomb program. Starts from WWI and continues until after the end of WWII. Includes short biographies of all of the major figures of the program, as well as a firm outline of the political situation which surrounded them. Harrowing detail of when the bomb itself was dropped, and what the creators thought during the while ordeal. Brilliant blend of history and science. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
This book has stared out at me from my shelf for over two decades. I finally accepted the challenge: It is a marvel of research and writing. It reads at points like a great mystery novel as world class physicists struggle not only to impact the young field of nuclear physics but to understand the significance of what others have found both in theoretical and real world terms. It is great science, great history, great storytelling. It captures the pity of an open scientific community pulled in both WW I & II into plying their trade for their respective nation states.

Before reading this, I had no real appreciation for the magnitude of the U.S.'s industrial buildout during the war years--its unbelievable scale--once the project was fully underway. It seems clear that only an industrial juggernaut could have carried out the building of the bomb while fighting a two front world war.

The book is also, of course, very disturbing because there is no mistaking the ultimate goal. Rhodes captures the satisfaction the Los Alamos scientists have in their contribution to ending the war with their 'gadget' at the same time they struggled with their misgivings about what they have unleashed. Their pride in years of work runs headlong into Rhode's wrenching descriptions of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bombing.

Rhodes focuses frequently on Neils Bohr and his greatness as a theoretical physicist, a humanitarian, and as a sort of seer in his ability to see what the bomb might mean for the world and, in the hands of individual nation states, what it most probably would come to mean. Rhodes, having lived with this material and the issues for so long, does not back off at the book's conclusion from making the reader face the 'Nation of the the Dead' created by 20th century war and the famine and pestilence that follows in war's wake and our seeming inability to grapple with this in any other than the old nation-state bound ways. ( )
1 vote tsgood | May 29, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684813785, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:58:52 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Describes in human, political, and scientific detail the complete story of how the bomb was developed, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the power of the atom, to the first bombs dropped on Japan.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 3 descriptions

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