The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, Pt. 2

The Making of the Atomic Bomb turns 35 this year. My copy is a 25th anniversary edition, and it opens with the words, “More than seven decades after its conception under the looming storm front of the Second World War, the Manhattan Project is fading into myth.” The book itself was written and published in the age of Reagan, a time when the Cold War came closer to turning hot than it had for decades, and an American president casually joked about ending human civilization.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Manhattan Project is receding into history. “The massive production reactors and plutonium extraction canyons at Hanford, Washington; the half-mile-long uranium enrichment factory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; the several hundred thousand workers who puilt and operated the vast machinery while managing to keep its purpose secret, disappear from view, leaving behind a bare nucleus of legend: a secret laboratory on a New Mexican mesa, Los Alamos, where the actual bombs were designed and built; a charismatic lab director, the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who rose to international prominence until his enemies brought him low; a lone B-29 bomber incongruently named for the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay; a devastated city, Hiroshima, and poor ruined Nagaski all but forgotten.” (p. 1)

The bombs remain, though fortunately Reagan’s bombast gave way to willingness to do business with a Soviet premier, and the Cold War ended in a way that none had foreseen when Rhodes published this book. Now the twin challenges are first, limiting a 1940s technology in the 2020s and beyond, and second, the hard work of voluntary abolition. “I think of a world without nuclear weapons not as a utopian dream but simply as a world where delivery times have been deliberately lengthened to months or even years, with correspondingly longer periods interim during which to resolve disputes short of war.” (p. 9)

Rhodes intended to tell the story of the bombs and found that he was telling a story of discovery. He learned that

… nuclear physics is almost entirely an experimental science. Which means that the discoveries that led to the bombs were the consequence of the physical manipulation of objects in the laboratory; this metal box, fitted with a radiation source, a sample inserted, measured using this instrument, with this result, and so on. Once I’d mastered the jargon, it was possible to read through the classic papers in the field, visualize the experiments, and understand the discoveries, at least where their application to making bombs was concerned. (p. 3)

Understanding the physical events showed him something important about their human meaning.

It gave the lie to the naive belief that the physicists could have come together when nuclear fission was discovered (in Nazi Germany!) and agreed to keep the discovery a secret, thereby sparing humankind the nuclear burden. No. Given the development of nuclear physics up to 1938, development that physicists throughout the world pursued in all innocence of any intention of finding the engine of a new weapon of mass destruction—only one of them, the remarkable Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, took that possibility seriously—the discovery of nuclear fission was inevitable. To stop it, you would have had to stop physics. If German scientists hadn’t made the discovery when they did, British, French, American, Russian, Italian, or Danish scientists would have done so, almost certainly within days or weeks. They were all working at the same cutting edge, trying to understand the strange results of a simple experiment bombarding uranium with neutrons.
Here was no Faustian bargain, as movie directors and other naifs still find it intellectually challenging to imagine. Here was no evil machinery that the noble scientists might have hidden from the politicians and the generals. To the contrary, here was a new insight into how the world works, an energetic reaction, older than the earth, that science had finally devised the instruments and arrangements to coax forth. … “It is a profound and necessary truth,” Robert Oppenheimer would say, “that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” (pp. 3–4)

Happy Petrov Day.


Optional musical accompaniment to this post:

Red Car, by Trees.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, Part 1.

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