The history of how atomic weapons were first created is an incredible story of human achievement. That such an achievement was for such terrible purposes makes it no less amazing. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes, is an absolutely enthralling book.
The excellence of the book is not at first evident. The first chapters of the book bounce around a lot, lacking a coherent thread. Rhodes spends a fair amount of time attempting to get inside the heads of certain scientists, leading to a couple of rather lengthy digressions into philosophy and armchair psychology. It turns out the smartest people in the world tend to have some kind of debilitating mental disorder or emotional problem. Shocker! But this context does eventually make sense. Those scientists who are able to conquer their internal issues are the ones who come to greatness.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb covers three main eras of history: worldwide atomic science up to the discovery of nuclear fission; fission research and the eventual creation of the Manhattan Project; and Los Alamos. Each of these eras is entirely fascinating in its own unique way.
The first era starts with the discovery of the electron in 1897 by J. J. Thomson in England. Rhodes describes in detail all of the essential science leading up to the discovery of fission. I especially appreciated the insights into each individual scientist’s history and how he or she came to make his or her discoveries. Rhodes’ scientific explanations are clear and well explained, and he has a clear love for the people involved. His text reveals their backgrounds, their motivations, their successes, their failures.
This early history is dominated by Ernest Rutherford, the great experimenter and discoverer of the nucleus and proton, and Niels Bohr, father of quantum mechanics and essential theorist. The descriptions of Rutherford’s ingenious contraptions and setups for his experiments, and his ability to read the data and postulate logical explanations for what had happened are especially compelling. The discovery of the neutron in 1932 by James Chadwick in England is another great story, as is the invention of the cyclotron, an efficient and ingenious particle accelerator, by Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley.
By 1933, Hitler was rising, and Rhodes describes in detail the tense escapes from Nazi Germany by various important scientists of Jewish ancestory, by any means possible. One of these was Lise Meitner, who escaped to Stockholm along with her nephew Otto Frisch, also an accomplished physicist. Her story is especially gripping. Meitner escaped just as she had been working with the renowned chemist Otto Hahn on neutron bombardment of uranium. This had been done before, and it was known that new elements were thrown off by the collisions. At the time, these elements were considered to be “transuranic”, heavier than uranium. But Hahn definitely proved that one of the elements thrown off was chemically identical to barium, much lighter than uranium by about half. He wrote to Meitner with the results, knowing that this must mean that the uranium atoms were being split, but not having any theoretical basis to believe this was possible.
Rhodes describes the amazing process of discovery as letters went back and forth between Stockholm and Germany between Hahn and Meitner. This thrilling section tells how Meitner, with Frisch, came up with the explanation on the eve of World War II at the end of 1938. Like a water drop, the heavy uranium atom was stretched in the middle by neutron bombardment until each end of the drop contained more cohesion to its end than to the other end. So the uranium atom split, becoming two new lighter atoms, giving off energy in the process. Nuclear fission had been discovered.
The discovery of nuclear fission launched a thousand experiments across the world. One of the major players at this time was Leó Szilárd, who had already come up with the concept of a nuclear chain reaction in 1933, but lacked any initiator for the process. Now he and others realized that it was just possible that nuclear fission might be the source of a chain reaction that could release incredible amounts of energy.
Again, The Making of the Atomic Bomb describes in detail the science and history of how it became known that slow neutron bombardment of uranium-235 will result in fission and a possible chain reaction. At the same time, the book describes the efforts by various scientists, including Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner, to alert the United States government to the possibility of the bomb. These three met with Albert Einstein, who signed the letter that was eventually delivered to FDR.
One of the most interesting themes of this section of the book is the clear transference to the USA of the momentum for the atomic bomb. Prior to the war, most of the best physicists had been in Europe. But many of these immigrated to the US around the start of World War II. These foreign-born scientists were absolutely essential to the creation and completion of the Manhattan Project.
One of the most important of these scientific immigrants was Enrico Fermi. Rhodes describes in detail his experiments into nuclear fission, culminating in the incredible description of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction in Chicago Pile-1. The scene as the scientists involved watched the first nuclear reactor actually work for the first time is absolutely amazing.
Eventually the Manhattan Project was officially created, and the Los Alamos site was constructed as the primary project location. As the project shifted into full gear, the book’s focus narrows to the scientists directly involved, mostly at that single location. But at the same time, Rhodes also checks in periodically with efforts outside the United States to create an atomic bomb. The Japanese program never really got off the ground. But the German program had some potential, under Werner Heisenberg. The Allied scientists were especially worried about this possibility. But the German atomic program was dealt a heavy blow by one the most amazing sabotage missions attempted during the war. A Norwegian chemical plant produced and stored most of the “heavy water” available to the Germans, a necessary component of their designs for a bomb (although Fermi in the US was using graphite instead, the Germans were not aware at this time that this was possible). The chemical plant was sabotaged multiple times, and knocked out of commission. The remaining heavy water was then scheduled to be shipped to Germany. Norwegian resistance fighters successfully blew up the ferry it was travelling on, the SF Hydro, effectively ending the German’s capability for obtaining an atomic bomb during World War II. Rhodes tells these stories extremely well, with a great deal of intensity and suspense.
The Manhattan Project was extremely well-run. How a project of its size and scope could be so successful is a tribute to human organization. The project came under the control of General Leslie Groves. This was a fortuitous decision. Groves had an incredible eye for talent, and he chose Robert Oppenheimer to lead the project at Los Alamos. This was not an obvious decision. Oppenheimer had been tangentially involved with left wing groups earlier in his life, and had some security clearance issues. He had no Nobel prize, and was not yet well known for his leadership qualities. But he grew into an incredible leader of men. This quote from Edward Teller is especially revealing:
Throughout the war years, Oppie knew in detail what was going on in every part of the Laboratory. He was incredibly quick and perceptive in analyzing human as well as technical problems. Of the more than ten thousand people who eventually came to work at Los Alamos, Oppie knew several hundred intimately, by which I mean that he knew what their relationships with one another were and what made them tick. He knew how to organize, cajole, humor, soothe feelings-how to lead powerfully without seeming to do so. He was an exemplar of dedication, a hero who never lost his humanness. Disappointing him somehow carried with it a sense of wrongdoing. Los Alamos’ amazing success grew out of the brilliance, enthusiasm and charisma with which Oppenheimer led it.
The Manhattan Project was two simultaneous efforts: the work to develop the mechanism by which a nuclear explosion could happen at Los Alamos; and the work to develop the factories responsible for creating the necessary materials. Uranium-235 and plutonium, a new element that could be created in a nuclear reactor, were the possible fissionable materials usable for a bomb. Initially it was not known which material would be best, or which method of extracting U-235 from regular uranium would work best. So the project followed an “all of the above” strategy where every possibility was followed. This resulted in several major factories across the United States being created for the extremely complex processes necessary to generate these elements. These factories were huge and complicated, and their successful completion is one of the great lesser known stories of the Manhattan Project. Niels Bohr had been initially skeptical that the materials for a bomb could be obtained in time to make a difference in the war. When he later went to Los Alamos, he told Edward Teller, “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.”
The “all of the above” strategy resulted in two bombs being created: Little Boy, a U-235 “gun-type” bomb; and Fat Man, an “implosion-type” plutonium bomb. Enough was known about Little Boy and its simpler mechanism that it was not considered necessary to test its design before use. But the implosion design was still unproven, so it had to be tested: the Trinity test.
Just before the Trinity test, President Roosevelt died. Oppenheimer’s speech after his death was especially poignant, and I think indicative of the feelings of the scientists on the project at the time:
We have been living through years of great evil, and of great terror. Roosevelt has been our President, our Commander-in-Chief and, in an old and unperverted sense, our leader. All over the world men have looked to him for guidance, and have seen symbolized in him their hope that the evils of this time would not be repeated; that the terrible sacrifices which have been made, and those that are still to be made, would lead to a world more fit for human habitation…. In the Hindu scripture, in the Bhagavad-Gita, it says, “Man is a creature whose substance is faith. What his faith is, he is.” The faith of Roosevelt is one that is shared by millions of men and women in every country of the world. For this reason it is possible to maintain the hope, for this reason it is right that we should dedicate ourselves to the hope, that his good works will not have ended with his death.
Rhodes’ description of the Trinity test is reliably fascinating. After the successful test, the scientists involved felt mostly relief and trepidation. They knew what they had done. Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad-Gita again: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
With the science complete, Rhodes uses the remainder of the book to describe the politics of its use. It’s likely that Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Japan was a fait accompli. 2 billion dollars had been spent to create it. It seemed likely that a bloody and terrible invasion of the home islands would be necessary otherwise. Rhodes describes in detail the flight of the Enola Gay on that fateful day. Most of the crew did not know until they took off what they were delivering.
Rhodes does not shy away from describing the aftermath of the atomic bomb. He uses a full chapter to describe the horrific effects on Hiroshima. The awfulness is tough to listen to, but necessary. The subsequent bombing of Nagasaki is similarly distressing.
The Epilogue to the book focuses on the dispersion of the Los Alamos scientists, the creation of the thermonuclear “Super” bomb, and the political effect that the existence of nuclear weapons entails. The Making of the Atomic Bomb was written in 1986, with the Cold War still in full effect. This fact colors some of the author’s commentary at times. But throughout the book, a good case is made (Niels Bohr’s case, originally) that the existence of the bomb prevented World War III between the US and Soviet Union, and continues to prevent war and lead to a more open world. Rhodes states:
The bomb that science found hidden in the world and made manifest would destroy the nation-state paradoxically by rendering it defenseless. Against such small and cheap and holocaustal weapons no defense could ever be certain. The thickest shields, from fighter aircraft to Star Wars, could be penetrated merely by multiplying weapons, decoys and delivery systems. The only security from the bomb would be political: negotiation toward an open world, which would increase security by decreasing national sovereignty and damping out the violence that attended it.
If the bomb seems brutal and scientists criminal for assisting at its birth, consider: would anything less absolute have convinced institutions capable of perpetrating the First and Second World Wars, of destroying with hardware and callous privation 100 million human beings, to cease and desist?
The Making of the Atomic Bomb is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever read. I cannot recommend it enough.