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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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2,001333,355 (4.47)51
Title:The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Authors:Richard Rhodes
Info:Simon & Schuster (1995), Paperback, 928 pages
Collections:Your library

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

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    Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes (Anonymous user)
  2. 00
    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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There are essentially three stories here. The process of scientific investigation of the atom that brought about the discovery that nuclear fission had potential as a means for the controlled and uncontrolled release of large amounts of energy; the political and ethical discussion that led to the decision to develop and exploit this, and the engineering effort needed to realise it in practice. Rhodes does a good job of balancing these three elements - I was reasonably familiar with both the science and the politics from other sources, but I still found his account interesting and occasionally it even told me something I'd overlooked before. About the engineering side of things I knew essentially nothing, and there I found this account absolutely fascinating. When you understand the sheer scale of the effort required to produce useful quantities of enriched uranium or plutonium, it makes you see the whole thing in quite a different way. It wasn't a matter of a few élite scientists tinkering on a mesa in New Mexico: as Rhodes describes it there were vast factory complexes in several different regions of the USA employing tens of thousands of workers to produce a few kilos of bomb material. And presumably not having the least idea what they were making.

Whilst he is very good as a descriptive writer, with only the occasional irritating mannerism (e.g. a tendency to be a bit patronising when mentioning the wives of the male scientists), what I missed in this book was analysis. Except when his characters stop to reflect themselves, Rhodes never really steps away from the flow of the action, and he doesn't get into discussions of why something happened, how to resolve conflicting reports of something, or what might have happened had a different decision been taken. It's all very much "it happened, therefore it happened".

Rhodes never directly expresses a moral judgement on the people who took the decision to build the bomb and to use it. His technique is to present us with the evidence (as he sees it) and let us make up our own minds. Which is probably sensible, if he wants to sell his book to generals as well as to liberals, and gets him off the hook of judging with hindsight. But the way the evidence is presented does seem to be designed to remind us that the worst atrocities of World War II were carried out with "conventional" weapons, and to guide us into agreeing that it would have been dangerous not to work on atomic weapons whilst there was a risk that Hitler might be doing the same, and foolish of Truman not to use the atom bomb to end the war with Japan. Which of course skips over a few problematic areas...

Rhodes tells us surprisingly little about how much the various participants in the nuclear arms race knew about each other's work during the war. Even if security and espionage fall a little outside the framework of the book, these are very relevant questions for the decision-making process (at the moment when you discover that Hitler has no realistic chance of building a bomb, your main justification for developing a US bomb falls away, for instance). I wonder if some of his vagueness here is deliberate, or whether it is simply a matter of not having been granted access to the relevant records? The argument he mentions, that the project was so secret it would have been unacceptably risky even to tell a field agent what questions to ask, doesn't seem terribly convincing. ( )
  thorold | Apr 28, 2015 |
This is a very important point in scientific history, and students would de well to know the story behind it. I would probably use this as supplementary material for the chemistry lesson on nuclear reactions.
  ogroft | Apr 14, 2015 |
Not just about the atomic bomb, but partially a history of early twentieth century science, a little bit of politics, a little bit of the horrific aftermath of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and post World War II developments.

I learned a lot and enjoyed doing it. I can see why he won the Pulitzer for this. ( )
  JohnMunsch | Dec 15, 2014 |
It took me almost 2 years to read this, but that was by design. I would read about 10 pages a week and just study and try to absorb all I could from it. What a fantastic book....this major work of history takes the reader from the very beginnings of the journey of the theoretical insight of the people who first conceived of splitting the atom all the way through design, experiments, more design, tests, fabrication, more tests, Trinity (which is by far the most readable and intense part of the book), and ultimately the decision and action of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It even covers the political fall out and lead in to the Cold War with Russia through the ultimate path to the hydrogen bomb as well. This book leaves out nothing....it covers the horror that the Japanese experienced on August 6th and 9th, 1945....it delves into the feelings these brilliant men and women experienced before, during, and after those fateful events....it explains where the brainchildren of this concept came from and the political troubles they faced in Europe on their way to Los Alamos, Washington (state), and Oak Ridge. The most hair-raising part, as I mentioned, was Trinity, the first atomic explosion test in New Mexico. Rhodes brilliantly portrays the people and events as it led up to that test and his descriptions of that test are just mind blowing. History buffs....if you also like long books, this is a must read. ( )
  utbw42 | Nov 30, 2014 |
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. ( )
9 vote StevenTX | Mar 7, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Rhodesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ratzkin, LawrenceCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In London, where Southampton Row passes Russel Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change.
Early in 1945 Oak Ridge began shipping bomb-grade U235 to Los Alamos. Between shipments Groves took no chance with a substance far more valuable gram for gram than diamonds. Although the Army had condemned all the land and ejected the original inhabitants from the Clinton reservation area, at the dead end of a dusty reservation back road cattle grazed on a pasture beside a white farmhouse. A concrete silo towered over the road which was sheltered by a steep bluff. From the air the scene resembled any number of small Tennessee holdings, but the silo was a machine-gun emplacement, the farm was manned by security guards, and built into the side of the bluff a concrete bunker shielded a bank-sized vault completely encircled with guarded walkways. In this pastoral fortress Groves stored his accumulating grams of U235. Armed couriers transported it as uranium tetrafluoride in special luggage by car to Knoxville, where they boarded the overnight express to Chicago. They passed on the luggage the next morning to their Chicago counterparts, who held a reserved space on the Santa Fe Chief. Twenty-six hours later, in midafternoon, the Chicago couriers debarked at Lamy, the stranded desert way station that served Santa Fe. Los Alamos security men met the train and completed the transfer to the Hill, where chemists waited eagerly to reduce the rare cargo to metal.
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:29 -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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