More Than a History of the Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Rlchard Rhodes. Simon and Shuster, New York, 1986. 788 pp. $22.95. This book is much more than a history of the atomic bomb. It is the story of the scientists who discovered that atoms consisted of nuclei and electrons, that atomic phenomena are quantized, and eventually that energy could be derived by splitting the heaviest nuclei. The author presents the scientists as real people with curiosity, imagination and fears in the turbulent years from the turn of the c

By | May 18, 1987

The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Rlchard Rhodes. Simon and Shuster, New York, 1986. 788 pp. $22.95.


This book is much more than a history of the atomic bomb. It is the story of the scientists who discovered that atoms consisted of nuclei and electrons, that atomic phenomena are quantized, and eventually that energy could be derived by splitting the heaviest nuclei. The author presents the scientists as real people with curiosity, imagination and fears in the turbulent years from the turn of the century to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Almost half of the book is the story of atomic and nuclear research from the work of the Curies to the discovery of fission by Hahn and Strassman, through the first world war, the rise of Hitler and the start of World War The rest is the story of the unsuccessful German effort to construct a weapon and the huge Manhattan District Project that did succeed, in the context of the terrible suffering during that terrible war. Laymen and scientists will find the narrative compelling and the science clearly explained.

Three physicists deservedly receive special attention: Leo Szilard, who persuaded President Roosevelt to support the bomb project and later attempted to prevent its use; Niels Bohr, who contributed so much to the unraveling of atomic and nuclear structure and then to measures that might pre vent nuclear catastrophe; and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who so effectively directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory and so eloquently described the problems that this development presented for society.

A few scientists were consulted on how the bombs might be used, but the decisions were made by President Truman and his advisers. The factors that influenced their decision also are fairly presented. The scientists hoped there might be early and frank discussions with the Soviets to prevent a nuclear arms race, if that were possible. The administration, how ever, looked at atomic weapons as a means to counter the Soviets, who were threatening to gobble up most of Europe and China.

The story ends with the end of the war. A short epilogue describes the events that led to development of the hydrogen bomb. There is no mention of the Baruch proposal for international control of atomic energy nor any of the other attempts to control the nuclear arms race. The author says: The basic questions engaged men in 1945; They engage us still as if the clock had stopped while only the machinery of armament has kept on running. The basic questions are indeed presented in the real world environment that existed then. Hopefully, laymen as well as scientists will read this fascinating story. Reminding us of how we got here may help us figure out how to live with the atom.

Higinbotham is a consultant physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY 11973. He was head of the electronics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1945 and the first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists in 1946.
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