Saturday, May 11, 2013

Completed: The Making of the Atomic Bomb


Terrifying photos of the Trinity test of the first nuclear bomb.
Whew. That was a big book. I'll try to organize myself, because otherwise it will be a totally random and scatter shot list of thoughts.

The Structure
The book is divided into three parts. The first part is all about the history of atomic science, going back all the way to the 1800s. One of the things I enjoyed about this first part was the personal histories of the many scientists involved in this story. This part of the book is like a who's who of physics. We learned all these names back in high school, such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and this book explains who these dudes were and how they uncovered the mysteries of the atom. The second part tells the story of the massive endeavor of the Manhattan Project and the building of the first bombs. Again, lots of big personalities in both science and politics in this section. Also, it is shocking that the military was able to undertake a task of such magnitude in such a remarkably short period of time. This was the part of the book where it was interesting to read about the sheer scientific genius that was put to the making of the bomb. The last part describes the political atmosphere surrounding the use of the bomb and the impact on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obviously, this was nothing short of horrifying. As you read the first sections, it's easy to be swept up in the "science for the sake of science" narrative. But then, it all turns as the author displays the completely terrifying consequences of the bomb.

The Science
 I think the biggest obstacle for me in reading this book was the meticulously detailed description of the science behind nuclear physics. The fact of the matter is, I spent a lot of this book "reading" long descriptions of scientific experiments and discoveries, but I'd say 90% of it went right over my head. I was talking to the science teacher in my office, and he pointed out that it's pretty hard to take in material like that if you're not responsible for it. He may be on to something. It's not like there's a burning necessity for me to really know all this stuff. So it was pretty easy to just skim right through a lot of the pure science and not worry too much about it.

However, there were times I stopped because it was pretty interesting. For example, the first nuclear reactor (although it wasn't called that at the time) was called Chicago Pile #1. It was built a block away from my husband's office on campus. The description of this experiment, where Enrico Fermi was calculating what he thought would happen with a freaking slide rule was pretty awesome. I mean, had he been wrong, the entire city of Chicago would probably be some sort of Chernobyl like exclusion zone!

I would say the most mesmerizing description in the book, for me, was the description of the Trinity tests of the first bomb out in the New Mexico desert. Even though I knew, obviously, that the test was successful, it's still strangely terrifying to read about it. Basically, they made the bomb and were pretty sure it would work, but they had NO IDEA of it's actual payload or explosive capacity. At one point, Rhodes explains how Enrico Fermi (him again!) devised a simple test with blowing paper to give an instantaneous, rough estimate of the actual strength of the bomb. The Trinity tests were completed on July 16, 1945. It was only weeks later that they dropped the bomb in Japan. The entire description of the pressure was intense and had me on the edge of my seat. It's skillful writing. Like the scientists, I found myself wondering if it would work and hoping it would. Of course, as soon as the test is successful, they must face the fact that they were now the creators of the most destructive weapon known to mankind.

The Politics
I'd say this was the biggest success of the book for me. Looking back now, it feels like the decision to drop the bomb was the most epic and awful decision ever made. How on Earth did the US justify using such a bomb? But the author does an excellent job of describing the American mindset at the close of World War II. Basically, the war in Europe was over but Japan was showing no signs of surrender. The Americans were demanding total surrender and Japan would not consider it. Furthermore, the Japanese military seemed frightening to Americans: how could so many Japanese choose death over surrender? At that time, a full scale invasion of the Japanese homeland was predicted to cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. By using the bomb, Americans were hoping to force Japan to surrender without the human cost of a full-scale invasion. Let me rephrase: without Americans having to pay a human cost. The loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was catastrophic.

The Random Stuff
One of the things that I liked best about the book were the random digressions to explain background or backstory. I read quite a few Amazon reviews of the book where people mentioned their dislike of these tidbits. However, I found them pretty interesting. One of the most amazing stories in the book relates to a question that comes up in my class every year. We study the Holocaust & Anne Frank, and there's this one map that I show them that shows the number of Jewish victims by country. For example, three million of Jews killed in the Holocaust were from Poland. But on the map, the number for Denmark is *super low*, like 22 or something like that. And every year, they want to know why: why is the number so low? What happened? And I never knew the answer until reading this book! As it turns out, one of the most heroic figures in the entire narrative is the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr was a Nobel Laureate and a well known figure in Denmark and he was able to use his considerable influence to protect many of the Jews in his country.

Another awesome tidbit: when the Nazis invaded Denmark, several Jewish scientists did not want their solid gold Nobel prize medals to fall into Nazi hands. Bohr came up with the idea of dissolving the medals in acid and storing the innocuous looking jars on a shelf. After the War was over, the Nobel Foundation recast the medals using the original gold.

pBook good, eBook bad!
I owned the pBook but once I was ready to read this, I realized an eBook was really the way to go. I mean, it's BIG, almost 800 pages of the narrative followed by 200 pages of footnotes, bibliography, and index. This morning, I read to the end of the book on my Kindle and thought that was that. However, I went to the pBook to look at the photographs in more detail, only to discover that the Kindle version of The Making of the Atomic Bomb does not contain the epilogue. Kelly, the epilogue is FORTY PAGES LONG! It's not just a throwaway. The book ends in August 1945 with the dropping of the two bombs on Japan and the immediate aftermath. The epilogue covers the reaction of the scientists, a brief overview of the politics behind the end of World War II, and a description of how nuclear weapons effected the Cold War. Now, the discrepency *could be* due to the fact that my pBook is a few years old, while the eBook is the new 25th anniversary edition. However, given the content in the epilogue, I have a hard time believing that it was completely omitted in the new version. This would be a real bummer for someone reading the book and having no way of knowing that the entire ending is missing. I emailed Amazon about it. I read the whole thing, so I don't want my money back, but you'd think they would want to know, right?

In Conclusion
Overall, this was a pretty amazing book. I can't say that I got it all, but I do remain amazed at the construction of the narrative. I would have loved to see the notes on this thing. I mean, how it is even possible to keep all the hundreds of characters, places, experiments, etc straight? What an amazing story!

I might need to read a couple of frothy, light things though to even it out. The new Sookie Stackhouse is on deck in the Reading Circle!



  1. Update from Amazon: They say that the book is all there according to what they have, and if I think there is an error, I should contact the publisher.

    Interestingly, I did look further through the Amazon reviews and someone else mentioned the lack of epilogue. I guess next time I'm in the real bookstore, I'll take a look at the pBook and see if there's an epilogue present.

    I must say, the email I got back from Amazon was rather terse. I've come to expect better customer service from them.

    Oh well.

  2. I'm impressed with your commitment to a book of this magnitude, both in length and subject matter! (I'm glad we have this blog -- I'd rather just read your write up...)

    I talked to my grandmother once about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. To this day, it's pretty much the only time she says something positive about the US: "Thank god they came in and ended that war." She agrees it was a horrible tragedy, but the feeling of "It was the only solution!" is stronger for her.

    We were just talking about Chernobyl last week. Have you seen photos of what that looks like today? Here is a group of photos published last year (nope -- no relation to that photog). What we were talking about is that these look eeeeerily similar to so much of the "ruin porn" you see coming out of Detroit these days. Oof.

    Any followup from Amazon on that missing Epilogue? That seems like BS to me. According to the TOC list at Barnes & Noble for the 25th Anniversary edition, there is an epilogue.

  3. Shockingly, the Amazon answer seemed to be "not our problem." Weird. And totally weird that the publisher hasn't fixed this in the Kindle version. I mean, how hard could that be?