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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