Review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

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Trinity Test, July 16, 1945

Trinity Test, July 16, 1945

I will monitor my Amazon Associates account today–if at least one Reader does not buy a copy of this fine book, I will have indisputably proven my superfluity.

TitleThe Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

Date: January 22, 2013 (#3)

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Our astute Readers will note that fifteen days passed in the reading of this 896-page behemoth. Allow me to deploy all the most hackneyed New York Times book review clichés at the start to prevent your being put off by this book’s length:

  • Page turner!
  • Can’t put it down!
  • It’s no doorstop!
  • Engrossing…erudite…an instant classic!

The Making of the Atomic Bomb has gone through several editions since its initial publication and currently is available in its 25th anniversary edition, including a new preface by the author. I realize that I lightly toss around words like “seminal” and “locus classicus” on this website–sometimes ironically–but there is little doubt that Mr. Rhodes’ book will stand for a century as the standard work on its subject matter.

Coming to the subject matter, the book roughly divides into three parts of unequal length. The first quarter of the book is what Mr. Rhodes calls a “pre-history” of atomic physics, a survey of the groundbreaking theoretical and experimental work performed primarily at Cambridge by household names like Rutherford, Thomson, Becquerel, the Curies, Geiger, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Einstein. Although Readers will be familiar with the basic outlines from secondary school chemistry or physics courses, never will they have seen scientific laws described with such concision and elegance. Here is Mr. Rhodes on the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Besides forbidding the construction of perpetual-motion machines, the second law defines what Planck’s predecessor Rudolf Clausius named entropy: because energy dissipates as heat whenever work is done—heat that cannot be collected back into useful, organized form—the universe must slowly run down to randomness. This vision of increasing disorder means that the universe is one-way and not reversible; the second law is the expression in physical form of what we call time.

This survey of Scientists is far the most intellectually stimulating section of the book, and the excitement of discovery is palpable:

For the scientist, at exactly the moment of discovery—that most unstable existential moment—the external world, nature itself, deeply confirms his innermost fantastic convictions. Anchored abruptly in the world, Leviathan gasping on his hook, he is saved from extreme mental disorder by the most profound affirmation of the real.

The most patriotically stimulating section–for Americans and Englishmen, also for émigré Germans and Hungarians–forms the core of the book and follows the Bureaucrats-cum-Engineers of the Manhattan Project as they race to produce a “device” before the Germans or Japanese. The story of Los Alamos and Trinity is well known. What emerges in these pages is the definitive account of the crowning, if morally ambiguous, achievement of American civilization. The prime mover here is, of course, Oppenheimer, but his supporting cast of Szilard, Fermi, Polyani, Wigner, von Neumann, and countless others is lovingly and minutely depicted.

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki, on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki, on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

The third and briefest part sets forth the military context for the use of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively.

Mr. Rhodes is perhaps most to be praised for his humane treatment of a fraught subject–neither a radical anti-Truman revisionist nor blind to the human consequences of the atom bomb, Mr. Rhodes writes with great delicacy on The Bomb’s aftermath:

Only the living, however inundated, can describe the dead; but where death claimed nine out of ten or, closer to the hypocenter, ten out of ten, a living voice describing necessarily distorts. Survivors are like us; but the dead are radically changed, without voice or civil rights or recourse. Along with their lives they have been deprived of participation in the human world. “There was a fearful silence which made one feel that all people and all trees and vegetation were dead,” remembers Yokota, a Hiroshima writer who survived. The silence was the only sound the dead could make. In what follows among the living, remember them. They were nearer the center of the event; they died because they were members of a different polity and their killing did not therefore count officially as murder; their experience most accurately models the worst case of our common future. They numbered in the majority in Hiroshima that day.

Destroyed, that is, were not only men, women and thousands of children but also restaurants and inns, laundries, theater groups, sports clubs, sewing clubs, boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, love affairs, trees and gardens, grass, gates, gravestones, temples and shrines, family heirlooms, radios, classmates, books, courts of law, clothes, pets, groceries and markets, telephones, personal letters, automobiles, bicycles, horses—120 war-horses—musical instruments, medicines and medical equipment, life savings, eyeglasses, city records, sidewalks, family scrapbooks, monuments, engagements, marriages, employees, clocks and watches, public transportation, street signs, parents, works of art. “The whole of society,” concludes the Japanese study, “was laid waste to its very foundations.” Lifton’s history professor saw not even foundations left. “Such a weapon,” he told the American psychiatrist, “has the power to make everything into nothing.”

It is essential that you read this book, dear Reader.

Best news of all? Mr. Rhodes wrote a sequel: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. While I have not yet sufficiently digested the first work to take on the second, it certainly is on The List for 2013-14.

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Next: The Good German, by Joseph Kanon

Google Translate

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A fascinating article on “big data” in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs claims that the output of the Google Translate product is “quite good.”

As a test, I entered a famous line from Wilhelm Müller’s Die Winterreise, best known for the Schubert song cycle of the same name:

Die Liebe liebt das Wandern, Gott hat sie so gemacht.

The result?

Love loves hiking, God made them that way.

Perhaps Victor Hugo will suit better:

Elle avait pris ce pli dans son âge enfantin
De venir dans ma chambre un peu chaque matin.

Result:

She took the crease in his boyish age to come into my room a little every morning.

Perhaps Hugo’s infant daughter was a goalie.

Or maybe the Divine Comedy?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Not bad:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Juvenalian satire, anyone?

Tongilianus habet nasum, scio, non nego, sed iam nihil praeter nasum Tongilianus habet.

Case-based languages are tricky even for humans:

Tongilianus has a nose, I know, I do not deny, but already it has had nothing but a nose Tongilianus.

Let’s try Asia. One of Basho’s most renowned haiku:

この道を 行く人なしに 秋の暮

Well, that one was tough:

The late autumn without people go this way.

I’m sure Google knows its Tang poetry:

关关雎鸠, 在河之洲。
窈窕淑女, 君子好逑。

Most creative response yet:

Customs cock sing in the River Island.
My Fair Lady, Marty.

Prose will perhaps fare best:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.

Almost, but not quite:

In a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not remember, not long ago there lived a gentleman of the lance and ancient shield, a lean hack and a greyhound.

Polyglots may have some miles left in the tank after all.

Review: Against Fairness

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The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, by Jacques-Louis DavidUp with nepotism and simony! Down with merit and blind justice!

TitleAgainst Fairness, by Stephen T. Asma

Date: January 7, 2013 (#2)

A title that cries out for explanation: Against “fairness”? May as well declare one’s implacable opposition to “nutrition” or “longevity”!

The inimitable Meghan Clyne of National Affairs, in her Wall Street Journal review:

Who could possibly argue against fairness?

Stephen Asma is willing to try. Contemporary society, he argues in “Against Fairness,” is obsessed with fairness, which he takes to mean a universal egalitarianism and its attendant ideologies and practices, including meritocracy, redistribution and utilitarian ethics. Our “hunger for equality” prohibits favoritism, Mr. Asma says, but this great leveling also razes the virtues that arise from favoritism—duty, honor, loyalty, compassion—leaving us with a shallow notion of the good.

The thesis is particularly jarring when one considers the author’s political milieu. A professor at Chicago’s Columbia College, Mr. Asma is to all appearances a man of the moderate Left, a movement whose objective since (at least) the Enlightenment has been the liberation of mankind from tribal preferences and playing favorites. More broadly, perhaps the only remaining dogma to which Left and Right jointly subscribe holds that men are born equal and must be rigorously, impartially, and bureaucratically sifted as equals striving on a level playing field.

Mr. Asma boldly disagrees with the near universal consensus. Our very biology commands us to favor kin and clan over strangers. Why shouldn’t I appoint my nephew as bishop if it lies in my power to do so? Who are we to disobey our primal emotions?  Mr. Asma’s thoughtful book draws upon anecdotes ancient and modern as well as scientific research to argue that favoritism, for all its apparent inefficiencies, makes us happy.

Mr. Asma’s model society is China, where (he argues somewhat unconvincingly) traditional mores do not question the mixing of business and pleasure, of power and family ties. (Pace, Red Guards.) Miss Clyne notes the apparent contradiction of relying on the Analects to advocate a return to our own tribal affinities.

She continues:

America does have its own cultural resources to deploy in restoring the values that have been eroded by our fairness culture: “Honor thy father and mother” is a powerful injunction to filial devotion. The problem is that Mr. Asma—who takes great pains to establish that he is a liberal in good standing—doesn’t want to draw on them. He is “not suggesting a conservative return to religious values.” Instead, he offers a new moral prescription: a favorites-based ethics built on purely emotional ties.

While freely acknowledging the excesses of overweening egalitarianism, this Superfluous Man is more hesitant to jettison “fairness” as such than Mr. Asma. Western civilization’s attachment to impartiality runs deeper than the green eyeshade rationalism of an Adam Smith or a Jeremy Bentham, and Miss Clyne is close to the mark when she makes reference to Scripture.

Nature may be red in tooth and claw, and Confucius may counsel filiopiety. But in no small measure, the boundaries of our Western tribe–the pre-rational mores that allow our civilization to cohere–are delimited by the principles of fairness, impartiality, and blind justice. These concepts may frequently be stated as rationalistic universals, but they are also the tribal norms that long ago distinguished Jerusalem from the Gentiles, Athens from the Persians, and Rome from the Visigoths. I would argue that Westerners do not arrive at “fairness” through ratiocination–we imbibe it with our mothers’ milk.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, or better yet, Livy’s recounting of the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, the Roman consul who supervised the execution of his own two sons for their roles in the Tarquinian conspiracy:

After the royal property had been disposed of, the traitors were sentenced and executed. Their punishment created a great sensation owing to the fact that the consular office imposed upon a father the duty of inflicting punishment on his own children; he who ought not to have witnessed it was destined to be the one to see it duly carried out. Youths belonging to the noblest families were standing tied to the post, but all eyes were turned to the consul’s children, the others were unnoticed. Men did not grieve more for their punishment than for the crime which had incurred it – that they should have conceived the idea, in that year above all, of betraying to one, who had been a ruthless tyrant and was now an exile and an enemy, a newly liberated country, their father who had liberated it, the consulship which had originated in the Junian house, the senate, the plebs, all that Rome possessed of human or divine. The consuls took their seats, the lictors were told off to inflict the penalty; they scourged their bared backs with rods and then beheaded them. During the whole time, the father’s countenance betrayed his feelings, but the father’s stern resolution was still more apparent as he superintended the public execution.

Mr. Asma, no doubt, would argue that Brutus would have been entirely justified–and more importantly, far happier–had he arranged for his sons’ acquittal or escape. Brutus wept as his sons were bludgeoned to death, but something irrational–something tribal–tells me that Brutus found greater happiness in maintaining his “stern resolution” than in greasing the palms of his sons’ jailers.

Next: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

Review: The End of the Line

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The End of the LineAt long last, the beginning of 2013 reviews. Let us take a more leisurely (and more informative) approach to today’s review of a short book.

TitleThe End of the Line: Romney vs. Obama: The 34 Days That Decided the Election, by Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin

Date: January 5, 2013 (#1)

The End of the Line is the fourth of four instant reaction reports on the 2012 presidential campaign by two senior Politico journalists.

Published on December 17, the book is the product of six weeks of solemn deliberation on the lessons of 2012. If poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” The End of the Line is demagoguery recollected in haste.

The natural–and perhaps unfair–comparison is John Heileman and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, which chronicled the more colorful 2008 election. Comparison is odious: Messrs. Thrush and Martin’s work is more long-form journalism than book, and in the era before eBook publishing (lo these many years ago) would have been cut by several thousand words and printed in The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

Odious, too, because the events and dramatis personæ of 2008 were so much more compelling than 2012. The End of the Line suffers the absence of La Divina Palin and Hillary “Take-My-Milk-for-Gall” Clinton.

Needless to say, this is not the sort of book to which one looks for wisdom. Of choice anecdotes, there are a few, slavishly reproduced here for our dear Reader’s delectation:

But Nate Silver said…

Obama had drafted what his team jokingly called his “loser” speech with Favreau days earlier. Romney had written nothing, pretty sure he wouldn’t need one.

That way madness lies…

I was seated with Rhoades,” recalled Fehrnstrom. “We were up in the Romney box, looking at each other, saying, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” Eastwood had completely ignored their instructions. “We sent him a script and some talking points, and basically what we wanted him to perform was his ‘Halftime in America’ spiel,” said the aide, recalling Eastwood’s much-praised 2012 Super Bowl ad for Chrysler. “That’s what we expected him to do. And he showed up without any notes, nothing for the teleprompter, and he asked for a chair, and he was given a chair.” The Eastwood episode, Romney supporters would later say, projected the image of a party growing old and a bit addled.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!

The moment Romney officials heard about the video, they knew it was devastating and possibly fatal. In Boston, “Mitt happens” was the mordant watchword for the candidate’s gaffes. But no one was joking this time. Romney knew it was a disaster. He felt so bad about his remarks that he sent a personal email to some of his senior aides taking responsibility for the damage he had caused and apologizing.

Pride goeth before a reelection

When it was all over, Obama was simply happy to have the ordeal behind him and seemed upbeat as he walked backstage with the first lady. He thought it had been a draw. “C’mon, I didn’t think it was that bad,” he said to his downcast aides a few minutes later. Michelle Obama corrected him, according to a Democratic source. “No, it wasn’t good,” she told her husband.

The one thing up with which I shall not put

After Denver, Gibbs—with the knowledge of Plouffe, Messina, and Axe—began emailing with the president on Obama’s secure BlackBerry to get a better sense of where Obama’s head was at.

Next: Against Fairness, by Stephen T. Asthma

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